Tag Archives: Iran

Iran blames Israel for sabotage at Natanz site as U.S. begins talks to re-enter nuclear deal

Iran blamed Israel on Monday for a sabotage attack on its underground Natanz nuclear facility that damaged its centrifuges, an assault that imperils ongoing talks over its tattered nuclear deal and brings a shadow war between the two countries into the light.

Israel has not claimed responsibility for the attack. It rarely does for operations carried out by its secret military units or its Mossad intelligence agency. However, Israeli media widely reported that the country had orchestrated a devastating cyberattack that caused a blackout at the nuclear facility. Meanwhile, a former Iranian official said the attack set off a fire.

The attack further strains relations between the United States, which under President Joe Biden is now negotiating in Vienna to re-enter the nuclear accord, and Israel, whose Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to stop the deal at all costs. Netanyahu met Monday with U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, whose arrival in Israel coincided with the first word of the attack.

At a news conference at Israel’s Nevatim air base Monday, where he viewed Israeli air and missile defence systems and its F-35 combat aircraft, Austin declined to say whether the Natanz attack could impede the Biden administration’s efforts to re-engage with Iran in its nuclear program.

“Those efforts will continue,” Austin said. The previous American administration under Donald Trump had pulled out of the nuclear deal with world powers, leading Iran to begin abandoning its limits.

‘We will take revenge’

Details remained scarce about what happened early Sunday at the facility. The event was initially described only as a blackout in the electrical grid feeding its above-ground workshops and underground enrichment halls — but later Iranian officials began referring to it as an attack.

A former chief of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard said the attack had also set off a fire at the site and called for improvements in security. In a tweet, Gen. Mohsen Rezaei said that the second attack at Natanz in a year signalled “the seriousness of the infiltration phenomenon.” Rezaei did not say where he got his information.

This photo released Nov. 5, 2019, by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran shows centrifuge machines in the Natanz uranium enrichment facility. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran/The Associated Press)

“The answer for Natanz is to take revenge against Israel,” Iran Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said. “Israel will receive its answer through its own path.” He did not elaborate.

Khatibzadeh acknowledged that IR-1 centrifuges, the first-generation workhorse of Iran’s uranium enrichment, had been damaged in the attack, but did not elaborate. State television has yet to show images from the facility. However, the facility seemed to be in such disarray that, following the attack, a prominent nuclear spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi walking above ground at the site fell seven metres through an open ventilation shaft covered by aluminum debris, breaking both his legs and hurting his head.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned Natanz would be reconstructed with more advanced machines. That would allow Iran to more quickly enrich uranium, complicating the nuclear talks.

“The Zionists wanted to take revenge against the Iranian people for their success on the path of lifting sanctions,” Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency quoted Zarif as saying. “But we do not allow (it), and we will take revenge for this action against the Zionists.”

Previous target of sabotage

Officials launched an effort Monday to provide emergency power to Natanz, said Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s civilian nuclear program. He said enrichment had not stopped there, without elaborating.

The IAEA, the United Nations body that monitors Tehran’s atomic program, earlier said it was aware of media reports about the blackout at Natanz and had spoken with Iranian officials about it. The agency did not elaborate.

Natanz has been targeted by sabotage in the past. The Stuxnet computer virus, discovered in 2010 and widely believed to be a joint U.S.-Israeli creation, once disrupted and destroyed Iranian centrifuges there during an earlier period of Western fears about Tehran’s program.

This photo released July 2, 2020, by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, shows a building after it was damaged by a fire at the Natanz facility. Authorities later described the mysterious explosion as sabotage. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran/The Associated Press)

In July, Natanz suffered a mysterious explosion at its advanced centrifuge assembly plant that authorities later described as sabotage. Iran now is rebuilding that facility deep inside a nearby mountain. Iran also blamed Israel for that, as well as the November killing of a scientist who began the country’s military nuclear program decades earlier.

Israel also has launched a series of airstrikes in neighbouring Syria targeting Iranian forces and their equipment. Israel also is suspected in an attack last week on an Iranian cargo ship that is said to serve as a floating base for Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard forces off the coast of Yemen.

Multiple Israeli media outlets reported Sunday that an Israeli cyberattack caused the blackout, but it remains unclear what actually happened there. Public broadcaster Kan said the Mossad was behind the attack. Channel 12 TV cited “experts” as estimating the attack shut down entire sections of the facility.

While the reports offered no sourcing for their information, Israeli media maintains a close relationship with the country’s military and intelligence agencies.

“It’s hard for me to believe it’s a coincidence,” Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies, said of the blackout. “If it’s not a coincidence, and that’s a big if, someone is trying to send a message that ‘we can limit Iran’s advance and we have red lines.'”

It also sends a message that Iran’s most sensitive nuclear site is penetrable, he said.

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CBC | World News

Iran claims secret recording about Flight PS752’s destruction is fake

Iran is pushing back at what it calls “fruitless sensationalization” of the Flight PS752 tragedy in the wake of a CBC News report about a secretly-recorded conversation that suggests the world may never know the truth of what happened.

As the regime celebrates the 42nd anniversary of the Islamic Revolution that overthrew the country’s monarchy, Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Javad Zarif and his spokesperson today responded to CBC’s story by claiming the recording is a fake.

“The allegations made in this article are incorrect and baseless and many of the statements attributed to Dr. Zarif are fundamentally not compatible with the language that he commonly uses and the claim of the existence of such a tape is not true,” ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh said in a statement in Farsi posted on the ministry’s webpage and translated by CBC News.

“We advise the Government of Canada to act professionally instead of its own fruitless sensationalism and to submit an expert report on the accident if it has an opinion.”

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. (Associated Press)

CBC News has confirmed the RCMP, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the Communications Security Establishment have had the recording of the private conversation in their custody for weeks. The security services are analyzing the recording’s authenticity and treating it with the “gravity it deserves,” said Ralph Goodale, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s special advisor on the Flight PS752 file. 

Truth may never be exposed, according to recording

CBC News listened to the recording and had three people translate it from Farsi to English to capture nuances in the language.

Sources identified the voice on the audio as belonging to Zarif. The individual is heard saying on the recording that there are a “thousand possibilities” to explain the downing of the jet, including a deliberate attack involving two or three “infiltrators” — a scenario he said was “not at all unlikely.”

He is also heard saying in Farsi that the truth about the aircraft’s destruction likely will never be revealed by the highest levels of Iran’s government and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps — an elite wing of the country’s military overseen by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader and commander-in-chief. The IRGC is designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S., Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

“There are reasons that they will never be revealed,” he says in Farsi. “They won’t tell us, nor anyone else, because if they do it will open some doors into the defence systems of the country that will not be in the interest of the nation to publicly say.”

CBC News has obtained a recording of a man sources have identified as Iran’s foreign minister acknowledging that the downing of Flight 752 could have been intentional. The Canadian government and security agencies are reviewing the recording. 2:49

According to sources, the audio of the private conversation was captured in the months after the aircraft was destroyed on Jan. 8, 2020, shortly after takeoff in Tehran. All 176 people aboard were killed, including 138 people with ties to Canada.

After three days of denial, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani stated publicly that human error was to blame. He said the military mistook the jetliner for a hostile target in the aftermath of an American drone strike that killed a high-ranking Iranian military general in Iraq.

Zarif tweeted Wednesday morning in response to CBC’s story, insisting Iran always believed there were many possible explanations for the downing but concluded human error was to blame.

“Following Flight #PS72 tragedy, I & many others insisted that ALL possibilities — including foreign infiltration or electronic interference — must be investigated (fake audio notwithstanding). Human error was finally judged as cause. Iran is committed to full justice for victims,” the minister wrote.

Zarif’s tweet and his spokesperson’s comments today are believed to be their first public confirmation that Iran looked into foreign infiltration or electronic interference as possible explanations for Flight PS752’s destruction.

In his statement, Khatibzadeh said “everyone knows” that Zarif stressed “the need to examine all possibilities” during official meetings in the weeks following the crash. He specifically cited “the meeting with the Foreign Minister of Canada” — an apparent reference to François-Philippe Champagne, the minister at the time.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh claims Canada is politicizing the destruction of Flight PS752. (CBC News)

Iranian official suggests Canada is spreading ‘rumours’

Khatibzadeh also accused Canada of politicizing Flight PS752 and upsetting families.

“Families who have lost loved ones in this unfortunate tragedy are enduring great grief that is not easy to alleviate,” he wrote.

“We call on Canada not to add to the grief of bereaved families every day with such actions and rumours.”

Hamed Esmaeilion, spokesperson for the association representing victims’ families in Canada, says Zarif is the one causing grief for survivors.

“Javad Zarif, his actions and the whole Iranian regime is adding to the grief of the families,” said Esmaeilion. “Nothing is more valuable than human life. He says finding the truth can open doors to our defence system. What about human lives?”

Hamed Esmaeilion, his wife Parisa Eghbalian and daughter Reera Esmaeilion in happier times. Both Parisa and Reera died aboard Flight PS752. (Submitted)

Thomas Juneau is an associate professor of international affairs at the University of Ottawa who studies intelligence analysis and Canadian foreign policy. He said that while the public emergence of the recording is a “bad surprise” and  “embarassing” for Zarif, the aftermath of PS752 “has fallen lower on the list of priorities of the government of Iran right now.”

“Ultimately, I think what the spokesperson and the foreign minister were trying to do with the response was to try and bat it away, basically,” he said.

Multiple countries — including Ukraine, where the airline that operated PS752 is based — have until the end of the month to review Iran’s final report on the safety investigation. It’s not clear when that document will be released publicly.

The past four interim reports suggested that a long list of human errors and other issues resulted in the IRGC mistakenly firing the missile at the commercial plane.

Khatibzadeh said Iran’s final safety report will be written by “impartial and competent experts.”

“Investigation into air accidents is a completely specialized and technical issue, and by spreading rumours and politicizing work, it is not possible to impose a result on the public opinion in line with the poisonous political goals,” he said.

Goodale has said a forensic examination and analysis team is working independently to piece together what led to the catastrophe.

“What we want to do at the end of the day for the families is to put all of this together in a coherent statement, as strong and clear as we can make it, about what happened and why it happened,” said Goodale.

In a media statement, Global Affairs Canada said the federal government is committed to obtaining justice for the victims and the bereaved by holding Iran to account.

“Canada’s police and security agencies are examining the reported audio tape with great care to determine its authenticity and full meaning. We cannot comment on its content at this time because lives may be put at risk,” said Global Affairs spokesperson Christelle Chartrand.

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CBC | World News

Goodale’s report on Flight PS752 tragedy says Iran should not be ‘investigating itself’

The prime minister’s special adviser on the destruction of Flight PS752, Ralph Goodale, issued a report today saying that Iran should not be left in charge of the investigation — since it was the actions of the Iranian military that caused the deadly crash in the first place.

“The party responsible for the situation is investigating itself, largely in secret,” former federal cabinet minister Ralph Goodale wrote in the report, released this afternoon. “That does not inspire confidence or trust.”

“In the circumstances of this case, as known thus far, there are indications of incompetence, recklessness and wanton disregard for innocent human life.”

Goodale said that while international procedures assign the responsibility for investigating such air disasters to the country where the crash took place, those rules create a “conflict of interest” in military-related incidents and lack “safeguards” to “ensure independence, impartiality or legitimacy.”

“This undermines the investigation’s credibility and enables a sense of impunity in avoiding essential questions,” Goodale wrote. 

Goodale’s 74-page report comes ahead of the one-year anniversary of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) shooting down the Ukraine International Airlines plane on Jan. 8 shortly after takeoff in Tehran with surface-to-air missiles. The attack killed all 176 people onboard, including 138 people with ties to Canada.

Justin Trudeau appointed Goodale in March to oversee Canada’s response, with a focus on the plight of grieving families. The federal government was accused of doing little for families in the wake of the Air India disaster in 1985 and the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crash of last year.

As a “country, we must acknowledge shortcomings in our responses to previous tragedies and ensure vital lessons are taken to heart,” wrote Goodale. 

Case was ‘complex and difficult’

Goodale said investigating the crash was “complex and difficult” in part because Canada does not have diplomatic relations with Iran and has identified it in Canadian law as a “state supporter of terrorism.” He said Iran has “not yet been forthcoming” in answering questions posed by Canada — including a key one about the fact that Iran’s airspace was left open the night its military forces fired missiles at U.S. locations in Iraq.

“Many of the key details of this horrific event remain unknown to Canada, to the other Coordination Group nations and to the families,” said Goodale. 

“Iran bears responsibility for that because — at least thus far — it has not conducted its investigations (safety, criminal or otherwise) in a truly independent, objective and transparent manner, and answers to critical questions have not been forthcoming.”

For days after the crash, Iranian officials denied any wrongdoing — until evidence gathered around the world showed otherwise. Only then, when “confronted with irrefutable evidence, they belatedly admitted Iran’s responsibility for this deadly travesty” and committed to an investigation, says Goodale’s report. 

Iran has blamed human error and other deficiencies 

Iran has provided updates about its investigation and has “suggested that a lengthy chain of human errors and other deficiencies resulted in the mistaken firing of the Iranian missiles” at the aircraft, the report said.

Canada has rejected Iran’s interim investigation report, which claims that the missiles were not properly reoriented after being moved and that a communication breakdown caused two IRGC members guarding the missile to misidentify the commercial plane as a threat and open fire twice without getting approval from senior ranking officers.

“Given the extraordinary nature of this description of events, it is understandable that the victims’ families find Iran’s explanations to be difficult to accept — at least so far,” wrote Goodale. 

Goodale also criticized Iran for the half-year it took to read out the plane’s black box flight data recorders — something which is supposed to happen “without delay” after an incident, according to international conventions.

“In the end, it took more than six months, fuelling anxiety and harming credibility,” he wrote.

Iran also turned down Canada’s request to become an accredited representative in the investigation, which would have given Canada more first-hand knowledge. Instead, Goodale wrote, Canada’s status was “limited to that of an observer.”

Six people in Iran have been charged in connection with the destruction of Flight PS752. Goodale’s report points out that Iran has not released any further details, including “who these people are, what they are alleged to have done, their degree or level of responsibility, the evidence being used against them, the substance of their defence, and the exact judicial process by which their guilt or innocence is being or will be determined.”

Canada’s response 

The report devotes a chapter to describing how federal officials responded behind the scenes after hearing reports of the crash.

Canada has its own forensic examination and assessment team trying to piece together evidence it’s gathering from family members. The independent Transportation Safety Board of Canada will review Iran’s final investigation report when it’s completed and “point out any deficiencies as necessary,” said the report. The International Coordination Response group, made up of countries that lost citizens in the crash, will continue pushing for answers and reparations from Iran, Goodale wrote.

CBC News has reported family members in Canada who have criticized Iran’s government after losing their loved ones in the downing of Flight PS752 have reported they’re being targeted with threats and intimidation — and they blame Tehran.

In his report, Goodale urges Canadian police and national security agencies to investigate every case of threats and harassment against Canadians and says they should be “prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

His report also contains a list of recommendations on how Canada should respond to mass casualty events like Flight PS752 in the future. They include putting families’ needs at the forefront, combating misinformation and fear by quickly organizing a response, gathering relevant facts early, providing mental health and post traumatic stress counselling services, and delivering facilitation letters to families in lieu of death certificates.

Goodale also cites the idea of creating a national centre of expertise to help law enforcement and the government coordinate and prepare for mass casualty events. 

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CBC | World News

Iran executes dissident journalist Ruhollah Zam

Iranian dissident journalist Ruhollah Zam, who was convicted of fomenting violence during the 2017 anti-government protests, was executed on Saturday, Iran’s semi-official Nour news agency reported.

Iran’s Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld the death sentence of Zam, who was captured in 2019 after years in exile. His Amadnews feed had more than one million followers.

State broadcaster Seda va Sima said on Saturday that Zam, “director of the counter-revolutionary Amadnews network, was hanged this morning.”

France and human rights groups had condemned the Supreme Court’s decision.

The son of a pro-reform Shia cleric, Zam, 47, fled Iran and was given asylum in France.

In October 2019, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps said it had trapped Zam in a “complex operation using intelligence deception.” It did not say where the operation took place.

Iranian officials have accused the United States as well as Tehran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia and government opponents living in exile of stoking the unrest, which began in late 2017 as regional protests over economic hardship spread nationwide.

Officials said 21 people were killed during the unrest and thousands were arrested. The unrest was among the worst Iran has seen in decades, and was followed by even deadlier protests last year against fuel price rises.

Zam’s website AmadNews and a channel he created on the popular messaging app Telegram had spread the timings of the protests.

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CBC | World News

Black box transcript confirms illegal interference with jet downed in Iran, says Ukraine

The transcript from the black boxes from a Ukrainian jet accidentally shot down by Iran on Jan. 8 confirm the fact of illegal interference with the plane, Ukraine’s deputy foreign minister wrote on Twitter on Friday.

Yevhenii Yenin said Kyiv was expecting an Iranian delegation to visit Ukraine next week for talks.

The Canadian Transportation Safety Board said on Thursday an international team examining the black boxes from the jet had completed a preliminary analysis of the data in France.

“Grateful to all partners who helped bring this moment closer. Black boxes from #PS752 were read out and deciphered successfully. The transcript confirmed the fact of illegal interference with the plane,” Yenin wrote on Twitter.

Iranian forces say they downed the Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737 jet after mistaking it for a missile at a time of high tensions with the United States. All 176 passengers on board died, including 55 Canadian citizens and 30 permanent residents.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said this month that it was too soon to blame human error for the shooting down of the airliner and that many questions remained unanswered.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in February that Kyiv was not satisfied with the amount of compensation Iran had offered.

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CBC | World News

Iran sends downed Ukrainian passenger jet’s black box to France for analysis

Iran has sent the black box of the Ukrainian passenger jet that its armed forces mistakenly shot down in January to France for reading, an Iranian semi-official news agency said Saturday.

Iran accidentally shot down the Boeing 737-800 in January, killing all 176 people aboard, including 55 Canadians. Iran initially denied responsibility for the incident, but later admitted its role in downing the jetliner, after mistaking it for an incoming missile.

Iranian armed forces had been bracing for a counterattack after launching missiles at U.S. bases in Iraq in response to the killing of its top commander, Gen. Qassim Soleimani, in a U.S. strike earlier in January.

ILNA’s report quotes Mohsen Baharvand, an aide to Iran’s foreign minister, as saying the downed jet’s black box was transported to Paris on Friday, accompanied by Iranian civil aviation and judicial officials.

Baharvand also said the black box will be read in Paris on Monday.

He said France will begin reading the flight recorders on Monday and praised the French government for its “very good cooperation with the Iranian delegation.”

WATCH | Iran blames Flight 752 crash on miscommunication, poor alignment:

Iranian investigators are blaming a misaligned missile battery and miscommunication between soldiers and their commanders for the Revolutionary Guard shooting down Ukrainian jetliner in January, killing 176 people — including 55 Canadians. 2:02

France’s BEA air accident investigation agency is known as one of the world’s leading agencies for reading flight recorders.

Iran has been in intense negotiations with Ukraine, Canada and other nations that had citizens aboard the downed plane, and which have demanded a thorough investigation into the incident.

An official from Canada’s Transportation Safety Board told CBC News in a statement: “We are deploying a team this weekend to Paris and we will have more information on Monday once they are onsite.”

In an interim report last week Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization blamed a misalignment of a radar system and lack of communication between the air defense operator and his commanders for the downing.

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CBC | World News

Iran blames missile strike that downed Ukrainian airliner on bad communication, poor alignment

Iranian investigators are blaming a misaligned missile battery and miscommunication between soldiers and their commanders for the Revolutionary Guard shooting down a Ukrainian jetliner in January, killing 176 people — including 55 Canadians.

A report released late Saturday by Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization comes months after the Jan. 8 crash near Tehran. Authorities had initially denied responsibility, only changing course days later after Western nations presented extensive evidence that Iran had shot down the plane.

The report may signal a new phase in the investigation into the crash, as the aircraft’s black box flight recorder is due to be sent to Paris, where international investigators will finally be able to examine it.

The strike happened the same night Iran launched a ballistic missile attack targeting U.S. soldiers in Iraq, its response to the American drone strike that killed Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad on Jan. 3.

Scheduled air traffic allowed to resume

At the time, Iranian troops were bracing for a U.S. counterstrike and appear to have mistaken the plane for a missile. The civil aviation report does not acknowledge that, only saying a change in the “alertness level of Iran’s air defence” allowed previously scheduled air traffic to resume.

The report detailed a series of moments where the downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 could have been avoided.

The report said the surface-to-air missile battery that targeted the Boeing 737-800 had been relocated and was not properly reoriented.

Rescue workers search the scene where the plane crashed just southwest of Tehran. (Ebrahim Noroozi/The Associated Press)

Those manning the missile battery could not communicate with their command centre, they misidentified the civilian flight as a threat and opened fire twice without getting approval from ranking officials, the report said.

“If each had not arisen, the aircraft would not have been targeted,” it said.

Western intelligence officials and analysts believe Iran shot down the aircraft with a Russian-made Tor system, known to NATO as the SA-15. In 2007, Iran took the delivery of 29 Tor M1 units from Russia under a contract worth an estimated $ 700 million US. The system is mounted on a tracked vehicle and carries a radar and a pack of eight missiles.

The report did not say why the Guard moved the air defence system, though that area near the airport is believed to be home to both regular military and bases of the paramilitary Guard.

The report notes that the Ukrainian flight had done nothing out of the ordinary up until the missile launch, with its transponder and other data being broadcast.

“At the time of firing the first missile, the aircraft was flying at a normal altitude and trajectory,” the report said.

Blame placed entirely on crew of missile battery

The plane had just taken off from Imam Khomeini International Airport when the first missile exploded, possibly damaging its radio equipment, the report said. The second missile likely directly struck the aircraft, as videos that night show the plane exploding into a ball of fire before crashing into a playground and farmland on the outskirts of Tehran.

The report put the blame entirely on the crew of the missile battery. Already, six people believed to be involved in the incident have been arrested, judiciary spokesperson Gholamhossein Esmaili reportedly said in June. He said at the time three had been released on bail while the other three remained held.

In recent months, Iran has repeatedly delayed releasing the aircraft’s so-called black box, which includes data and communications from the cockpit leading up to the downing. The U.S., under international regulations, has a right to be part of the investigation, as the plane involved was a Boeing.

Iran is to send the black box to France on July 20, where Ukrainian and French experts are expected to examine it, Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency recently reported. Iranian officials did not have the equipment on hand to read data from the box.

The plane, en route to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, was carrying 167 passengers and nine crew members from several countries, including 82 Iranians, 55 Canadians — including many Iranians with dual citizenship — and 11 Ukrainians, according to officials. The route was popular with those travelling onward to Canada.

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CBC | World News

Spanish region reimposes COVID-19 lockdown; Iran to deny state services to non-mask wearers

The latest:

  • P.E.I. now has five active cases after being free of COVID-19 since April 28.
  • India reports another record 24-hour jump in coronavirus cases.
  • Mexico overtakes France for 5th-highest death toll in the world.
  • U.S. holiday weekend adds to virus worries as case counts grow.
  • South Africa records more than 10,000 new cases in a day for 1st time.
  • 1st glimpse of Canada’s true COVID-19 infection rate expected mid-July from immunity testing.

The United States has dipped under 50,000 new coronavirus cases for the first time in four days, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University, but experts fear celebrations for the July 4th Independence Day weekend will act like rocket fuel for the nation’s surging outbreak.

Johns Hopkins counted 45,300 new coronavirus infections in the U.S. on Saturday after three days in which the daily count reached as high as 54,500 new cases. The lower figure on Saturday does not necessarily mean the situation in the U.S. is improving, as it could be due to reduced reporting on a national holiday.

In Florida, health officials say the state has reached a grim milestone: more than 200,000 people have tested positive for COVID-19.

State statistics released Sunday show about 10,000 new people tested positive. Saturday’s numbers — more than 11,400 cases — marked a record new single-day high. More than 3,700 people have died.

Cars wait at a drive-thru COVID-19 testing site in Miami Gardens on Sunday. (Wilfredo Lee/The Associated Press)

About 43 per cent of the cases are in three counties: Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach.

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez said Sunday on ABC’s This Week that the high numbers of positive tests both in his county and the state are “extremely worrisome.”

Suarez, who had the virus in March, said it’s clear the growth is “exponential at this point,” and officials are closely monitoring hospitalizations. They’re also closely watching the death rate, which “give us the impression” that “much stricter” measures have to be taken.

In Arizona, Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego is pointing to a “crisis” involving coronavirus testing shortages in her city due to surging cases in the state, which leads the U.S. in new coronavirus cases per capita.

Gallego, a Democrat, said some residents over the weekend had to line up for eight hours by car to get COVID-19 tests and that the federal government has been slow to help.

WATCH | Independence Day celebrations a concern in U.S. cases on the rise:

As new daily cases in the U.S. hit a record, concerns abound that July 4th celebrations will lead to an explosion of COVID-19 cases as people scoff at masks and physical distancing. 2:01

She told This Week on Sunday that Arizona went from “zero to 60” by being one of the first states to reopen after it was among the last to implement stay-at-home orders.

That led to an explosion of cases, Gallego said, citing crowded nightclubs with free champagne and people unwittingly spreading the virus at large family gatherings.

She faults mixed public messaging after U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent visit to Phoenix. Gallego said while she was urging people to stay at home and avoid gatherings of more than 10 people, Trump undercut that by holding large events and not wearing a mask.

A person wearing a protective face mask is seen in Denver on Sunday. (David Zalubowski/The Associated Press)

The U.S.  has the most infections and virus-related deaths in the world, with 2.8 million cases and nearly 130,000 dead, according to Johns Hopkins. Experts say the true toll of the pandemic is significantly higher, due to people who died before they were tested and missed mild cases.

To show just how steep the current infection curve is in the U.S., the country was reporting under 20,000 new infections a day as recently as June 15.

Despite warnings by health experts to limit gatherings, Trump went ahead with a speech at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota on Friday and an evening of tribute and fireworks Saturday on the National Mall in Washington.

What’s happening with COVID-19 in Canada

P.E.I. reported two new cases of COVID-19 on Sunday, bringing the total active cases in the province to five.

The two new cases are both men in their 20s. They are residents of P.E.I. and close contacts of one of the three cases reported Saturday.

Quebec reported an increase of 79 cases and eight deaths. The government says seven of those newly reported deaths took place before June 27.

A person leaves a COVID-19 testing clinic in Montreal on Sunday. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press )

In Ontario, the province reported 138 new cases, marking the sixth straight day the tally is below 200.

As of 2:30 p.m. ET on Sunday, Canada had 105,536 confirmed and presumptive coronavirus cases. Provinces and territories listed 69,239 of the cases as recovered or resolved. A CBC News tally of deaths based on provincial reports, regional health information and CBC’s reporting stood at 8,728. 

Here’s what’s happening around the world

More than 11.3 million people around the world are known to have been infected since the pandemic began, according to the Johns Hopkins University data. With shortages of testing materials, the real number of cases is unknown. More than 531,000 people have died.

In the Americas, Mexico overtook France for fifth-highest death toll in the world with more than 30,000 fatalities.

Brazil remains the epicentre in South America, with more than 1.5 million cases and more than 64,000 deaths.

In Bolivia, the rising death toll is overwhelming the city of Cochabamba. Police Col. Ivan Rojas told a news conference that the city is collecting “about 17 bodies a day. This is collapsing the police personnel and funeral workers” in the city of some 630,000 people.

The body of a person relatives say died with COVID-19 symptoms is seen wrapped in a plastic bag on a street in Cochabamba, Bolivia, on Sunday. (Dico Solis/The Associated Press)

In Asia-Pacific, India reported another record 24-hour jump in coronavirus cases, with more than 24,000 new infections.

The hard-hit Australian state of Victoria has recorded 74 new coronavirus cases after announcing a record 108 new infections on Saturday.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said those who do not wear masks will be denied state services, and workplaces that fail to comply with health protocols will be shut for a week.

People wearing protective face masks pray at a mosque in Zanjan, Iran, on Sunday. (Vahid Salemi/The Associated Press)

In Africa, a third head of state in the space of a week and a half is self-isolating after someone close to him tested positive for the coronavirus.

Ghana’s information ministry said President Nana Akufo-Addo has tested negative but decided to isolate himself “out of an abundance of caution.” Senegal’s President Macky Sall late last month isolated himself after a similar situation, and Botswana’s government on Thursday said President Mokgweetsi Masisi had gone into self-isolation yet again after a close official tested positive. This is the fourth time he has done so since March.

In South Africa, the country is for the first time reporting more than 10,000 new confirmed coronavirus cases in a single day. Officials have said beds in public hospitals are filling up, and nurses have expressed alarm.

Military personnel have their temperatures taken as they arrive at an air force station in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, on Sunday. (Michael Sheehan/AFP via Getty Images)

In Europe, police at roadblocks warned motorists they were entering a lockdown zone as Spain’s northeastern region of Catalonia reimposed restrictions on more than 200,000 people following several new coronavirus outbreaks.

Slovenia says 15 people have been infected with the novel coronavirus at a nursing home for the first time in weeks as the country faces a spike in cases.

After five straight days of small increases, the number of day-to-day confirmed cases in Italy has dipped.

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Iran dumps Flight 752 investigator after he suggests Tehran kept airspace open to conceal ‘imminent’ attack

A newly released audio recording suggests Iran’s highest authorities allowed commercial airliners to fly in and out of Tehran during the period of intense military activity when Flight 752 was shot down — because closing the airspace would have given away the regime’s plan to strike U.S. military bases in Iraq.

CBC News obtained a recording of a 91-minute conversation that took place March 7 between a victim’s family member in Canada and Hassan Rezaeifar, who was appointed the head of Iran’s investigation into the downing of the Kyiv-bound Ukraine International Airlines aircraft. The crash of Flight 752 killed 176 people, including 57 Canadians.

The recording, which reveals a number of damning details about the downing of the plane and Iran’s response, is also in the custody of Canadian authorities.

Less than 24 hours after CBC News emailed Rezaeifar a copy of the recording and requested a response Thursday, news broke that he had been removed from his role overseeing Iran’s investigation into the downing of Flight 752. Families in the United Kingdom — which has an embassy in Iran — were notified this morning that a new investigator is now in charge.

Airspace kept open to avoid signalling attack: Rezaeifar

In the recording, Rezaeifar said closing the airspace over Tehran could have exposed Iran’s pending ballistic missile attack on U.S. air bases in Iraq in advance. That attack was retaliation for the United States’ killing of Iran’s top military leader, Gen. Qasem Soleimani.

“Some say we should have cleared the airspace,” Rezaeifar said in Farsi on the recording. “The National Security Council is in charge.

“But let’s say we had cleared the airspace. Wouldn’t [it] give away our imminent attack?”

Flight 752 was shot down just four hours after the strike on the U.S. base. Rezaeifar added that closing the airspace could have meant cancelling flights. Iran earns hundreds of thousands of dollars daily in fees for allowing flights in its airspace.

“Ok, let’s assume we had delayed the Ukrainian flight for ten hours. Wouldn’t it have cancelled all other flights after?” said Rezaeifar on the call.

Investigators pick up debris at the crash site of the Ukraine International Airlines plane shot down after takeoff from Iran’s Imam Khomeini Airport on Jan. 8, 2020. (Nazanin Tabatabaee/WANA via Reuters)

Thomas Juneau, an associate professor of international affairs at the University of Ottawa and former analyst of Middle East affairs, said Iran has been insisting the investigation will be independent — and the audio recording proves it’s not. 

“Having the lead investigator saying those things on that phone call really damages that fiction,” said Juneau. “By removing him, they’re trying to protect that facade.”

Passengers used as human shields, says expert

Payam Akhavan, a Canadian-Iranian international law professor at McGill University and former UN prosecutor at The Hague, also reviewed CBC’s copy of the recording. Akhavan argues the audio is a new piece of evidence showing the highest levels of Iran’s government chose to keep planes full of people in the sky on a day of intense military activity. 

“The senior leadership of the government willingly and knowingly disregarded these risks,” said Akhavan. “This is not just a question of human error or mistake. It’s a question of criminal recklessness.

“To knowingly put civilian aircraft in harm’s way, to use civilian airliners in effect as human shields, clearly implicates criminal responsibility.”

Dozens of Canadians, as well as students and academics studying in Canada, were killed in the downing of Flight 752. (CBC)

Crash investigator in immediate contact with military

Akhavan also said the audio implicates the investigation team in a cover-up.

In the recording, Rezaeifar — who was the head of the accident investigation board at the Iran Civil Aviation Organization at the time — says he picked up the phone five minutes after the plane crashed and was in immediate contact with Iran’s military.

Rezaeifar said Amir-Ali Hajizadeh, the commander of the Aerospace Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), admitted the military was ordered to shoot missiles due to national security concerns.

“I was informed at 6:30 a.m. and I called the IRGC at 6:35 a.m. and asked, ‘Did you have a missile attack?'” Rezaeifar says in the recording. “Mr. Hajizadeh explained and said yes, and we had orders. He said there are some national security considerations in the country.”

On January 11, Iran’s military admitted it unintentionally shot down the plane and blamed human error, saying the military mistook the jetliner for a hostile target. That acknowledgement came after three days of denial and after satellite evidence showed that missiles had hit the aircraft.

Rezaeifar did not respond to CBC’s request for a comment. His name is used throughout the audio recording and CBC News has copies of messages sent from his Instagram account setting up the phone call.

Victim’s family member ‘intimidated’

Javad Soleimani’s wife Elnaz Nabiy died in the destruction of Flight PS752. (Supplied)

Javad Soleimani (no relation to Gen. Qasem Soleimani) was the Edmonton PhD student on the other end of the call with Rezaeifar. He said Rezaeifar pressured him to remove an Instagram post critical of the Iranian regime. Soleimani has been an outspoken critic of Tehran since his wife Elnaz Nabiy died in the crash.

In that Instagram post, Soleimani wrote Iranians won’t forget about the crimes the regime has committed against its own people.

“Please delete it from your Instagram,” Rezaeifar tells Soleimani on the call. “Do you agree that out of 83 million people of Iran, only 10 or 12 people have hurt you? Why should those other 82 million people be insulted by this post?”

He then asks Soleimani if he thinks the Canadian government is more “benevolent” toward him. 

“Are you certain that the whole Canadian government is good and uncorrupt?” asked Rezaeifar.

Two days later, Soleimani said, Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence contacted his family members in Iran to exert more pressure on them about his behaviour on social media. 

“It’s ridiculous,” Soleimani told CBC News. “They just wanted to somehow threaten me to stop criticizing the regime on social media because I had many followers on Instagram.

“They tried to force me to be silent … but honestly, I have nothing to lose. And I told him, I told him I have nothing to lose, so you cannot stop me by just threatening me by conversation over the phone.”

‘Inappropriate’ for investigator to pressure family member

Juneau said it’s “totally inappropriate” and “absurd” for the lead crash investigator to put pressure on a victim’s family member in Canada. He also said it’s not surprising.

“I did not expect the investigation to be independent and few serious analysts did,” Juneau said. “This basically confirms it.

“It’s not very smart. It’s just not a good move.”

He said the practice of the Islamic Republic is to exert psychological pressure, and often physical pressure, on anyone opposed to the regime, at home and abroad.

Juneau said he wants to know the extent of Rezaeifar’s relationship with the IRGC and Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence. He cautions the details of what Rezaeifar said on the recording might not be accurate, and might have been meant to exert pressure on Soleimani.

“Is it true?” said Juneau. “Is he boasting? Is he exaggerating some things to increase the level of intimidation towards family members? These are all questions that we don’t know the answer to.”

Syrine Khoury, press secretary to Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne, sent a written statement to CBC saying “interference with Canadian citizens is totally unacceptable, very troubling and won’t be tolerated.

“The government of Canada denounces any and all attempts to coerce or pressure Canadians, especially those suffering the loss of a loved one,” she added. “The government of Canada encourages anyone who feels threatened, unsafe or vulnerable to contact local law enforcement authorities.”

Ralph Goodale, Canada’s special adviser to the Trudeau government on the Flight 752 file, said the phone call “constitutes outrageous behaviour.”

“It’s wrong on every count of procedure, propriety, appropriateness. It’s simply completely wrong,” he said. 

He added the International Coordination and Response Group formed by Canada, Ukraine, Sweden, Afghanistan and the United Kingdom to support victims’ families will be investigating Rezaeifar’s “interesting and provocative” comments about keeping the airspace open to see if there’s truth to the remarks. 

Audio casts doubt on past reports

Hamed Esmaeilion, the interim spokesperson for the association representing the families of the Canadian victims, said the recording raises serious concerns about the two reports Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization has already published about Flight 752. Esmaeilion lost his wife, Parisa Eghbalian, and their nine-year-old daughter Reera in the destruction of Flight 752.

“I don’t see any different between Rezaeifar and the new investigator,” he said. “CAO is not independent. The whole organization is closely working with the IRGC.”

Iran is expected to publish another report on the crash before heading to France on July 20 to download and analyze the plane’s flight data recorders, according to a letter sent to victims’ families in the U.K. 

Hamed Esmaeilion lost his wife, Parisa Eghbalian, and their nine-year-old daughter Reera in the downing of Flight 752. (Supplied)

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Countries that lost citizens on Flight PS752 assemble to press Iran for ‘full reparations’

Canada and four other countries whose citizens died when the Iranian military mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet are formally joining forces to seek “full reparations” from Tehran, according to a letter sent to the families of the victims on Thursday.

The letter from the coalition of five nations, viewed by Radio Canada International, says that Canada, Afghanistan, Sweden, the U.K. and Ukraine “intend to work together to negotiate with Iran to seek to ensure that they are held accountable and make full reparations for the downing of Ukrainian Airlines Flight PS752, including in the form of compensation for the deaths of your loved ones.”

Fifty-five Canadian citizens and 30 permanent residents of Canada were among the 176 people killed when Flight PS752 was shot down by two Iranian missiles shortly after takeoff from Tehran on Jan. 8.

The five countries — members of the so-called PS752 Coordination Group — were to sign a formal memorandum of understanding (MoU) today establishing principles for proceeding with negotiations with Tehran, the letter said. Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne’s office tells CBC that Canada has signed the MoU.

“All five of the Coordination Group members believe that this form of state-to-state negotiation is the most likely way to ensure that we come to an agreement on how to settle this matter fairly,” the letter said.

“However, if talks are not successful, having previously negotiated with Iran in good faith will allow us to be in a position to pursue the matter further.”

A settlement could protect Iran in court

The letter says that while these state-to-state negotiations do not affect the right of victims’ families to seek compensation “from the relevant airlines pursuant to the applicable international civil aviation treaties,” once a settlement agreement with Iranian authorities is reached, it would prevent the families from going after Iran in international courts.

The coordination group has appointed Ukraine to speak for it during negotiations, officials at Global Affairs Canada said in a media statement.

The group has set up an advisory committee with representatives from each member nation that will be present during the negotiations and will support the work of the spokesperson, the statement said.

The five countries also have discussed the planned downloading of the flight recorders in France, compensation from Ukraine International Airlines and the criminal investigation into the tragedy, the statement added.

“The group continues to advocate for accountability, transparency, justice and compensation for the families and loved ones of the victims,” the statement said.

Families want justice before money, says spokesperson

Hamed Esmaeilion, spokesperson for the association representing the families of the Canadians who died on the flight from Tehran to Kyiv, said the families have made it clear to Champagne that accountability and justice matter far more to them than any monetary compensation could.

“We have said to Mr. Champagne that compensation for us is [a] full and independent investigation and then justice,” Esmaeilion told Radio Canada International. “Compensation stands third.”

Hamed Esmaeilion lost his wife, Parisa Eghbalian, and their nine-year-old daughter Reera in the downing of Flight 752. (Supplied)

Iran announced on June 26 that it will send the black boxes from the downed Boeing 737 to France to be deciphered later this month.

In a joint statement, Champagne and Transport Minister Marc Garneau welcomed the announcement.

“We will continue to hold Iran to account and seek accountability, transparency, justice and compensation for the victims of this tragedy, including a thorough, credible and transparent investigation,” said the statement.

After initially denying any responsibility for the crash, Iranian officials were forced to admit that an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps air defence battery mistakenly shot down the airliner minutes after departing Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport amid heightened tensions with U.S. forces in neighbouring Iraq.

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