US Threatens Sanctions On Venezuelan Lawmakers Over Bribes

President Donald Trump and Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guadio

 

The United States will consider sanctions against Venezuelan lawmakers accused of taking bribes to vote against opposition leader Juan Guaido, an official said Wednesday.

Guaido, recognized as Venezuela’s interim president by the United States and more than 50 other nations, was sworn in Tuesday for another term after a chaotic standoff in which troops physically stopped him from entering Congress.

The United States has already imposed wide sanctions aimed at toppling leftist President Nicolas Maduro’s regime and cutting off his government’s key funding source of oil.

Guaido and the United States say Maduro’s government offered bribes to members of the National Assembly, Venezuela’s sole institution controlled by the opposition, in hopes of defeating Guaido.

“There are people who have been engaged in corrupt activity that may have gotten themselves on the radar screen for the first time in the last few days,” a senior US official told reporters in Washington.

He said he was speaking of “people taking money from people that are already under sanctions in the United States.”

“We don’t put sanctions on people for the way they vote,” he said, adding that if individuals “aid or abet or profit from the anti-democratic behavior of the regime, you could be subjected to sanctions.”

Despite a crumbling economy that has sent millions fleeing Venezuela, Maduro remains in power with support from the country’s military as well as Russia, China, and Cuba.

The US is also “looking at additional sanctions” in response to growing Russian support for Maduro, Elliot Abrams, the State Department’s Venezuela envoy, said on Monday.

Trump Warns Iran Of ‘Major Retaliation,’ Threatens Sanctions On Iraq

 

US President Donald Trump threatened “major retaliation” Sunday if Iran avenges the killing of a key military commander and he warned of massive economic sanctions against ally Iraq if the country expels US troops based there.

The twin threats came as Iran announced it was further reducing compliance with a tattered international nuclear accord, ending limitations on numbers of centrifuges used to enrich uranium.

The latest blow to the accord, which was meant to ensure Iran did not develop a nuclear weapon under cover of its nuclear industry, deepened the regional crisis set off by Friday’s killing of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad.

Trump ordered a US drone to fire a missile at Soleimani, one of the most influential people in Iran’s government, when he was near the Iraqi capital’s international airport.

Angry, black-clad mourners thronged the streets of Iran’s second city Mashhad on Sunday to pay last respects to the remains of Soleimani and chant “death to America.”

Trump bluntly warned Iran against taking vengeance, repeating his insistence that US bombing targets could include Iran’s cultural heritage sites. Critics say that would qualify as a war crime under international law.

“If they do anything there will be major retaliation,” Trump told reporters on Air Force One, as he flew back to Washington — and a looming Senate impeachment trial — from vacation in Florida.

Trump had already threatened bombing of 52 unspecified targets in Iran if Tehran attacks US troops and interests in the region.

In his latest comments, he was adamant that targets could include places of cultural significance in a country boasting an ancient heritage and two dozen UNESCO-listed sites.

“They’re allowed to kill our people,” a defiant Trump said. “They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural site? It doesn’t work that way.”

 Iraq tensions also soar 

The situation in neighboring Iraq, a US ally, also deteriorated, with the future of some 5,200 American soldiers there in doubt.

Many Iraqis have expressed outrage over the killing of Soleimani, who masterminded deep Iranian influence in the country. A top Iraqi military figure Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was killed in the same US strike.

In Baghdad, unidentified attackers launched a pair of rockets Sunday, hitting near the US embassy in the high-security Green Zone for the second night in a row. That was just hours after Iraq’s foreign ministry summoned the American ambassador over the drone strike.

And Iraq’s parliament voted to request the government end an agreement with a US-led international coalition to fight the hardline Islamist group IS in the region.

If the government agreed, that would effectively require the departure of US soldiers supporting the local troops in the anti-IS fight.

Caretaker prime minister Adel Abdel Mahdi, who called the US drone strike a “political assassination,” indicated he would back the troops’ ouster. He said the choices were immediate expulsion or withdrawal under a timeframe.

Trump told reporters that a forced departure of US troops would prompt sanctions even worse than those already imposed, to devastating effect, on Iran’s economy.

“If they do ask us to leave — if we don’t do it in a very friendly basis — we will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before,” Trump said.

“It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.”

Trump said the main US base in Iraq was “very extraordinarily expensive.”

“We’re not leaving unless they pay us back for it,” he said.

Earlier, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sounded a softer note, saying “the Iraqi people want the United States to continue to be there to fight the counterterror campaign.”

 Threats and revenge calls 

Soleimani was one of Iran’s most popular public figures, seen as a hero of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.

He was also the key figure behind Iran’s effective network of proxy militias and alliances across a region where Iran is in often deadly rivalry with US allies Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has vowed “severe revenge.”

What that will look like is the subject of heated speculation in the Pentagon and the White House. Analysts say Iran may be limited in its room for maneuver if it wants to avoid full war with the far more powerful United States.

But a former head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards threatened on Sunday to turn the Israeli cities of Haifa and Tel Aviv “to dust” if the US attacks targets in Iran.

And Khamenei’s military adviser, Brigadier General Hossein Dehghan, told CNN that Iran’s response to the assassination “for sure will be military and against military sites.”

The crisis comes as Trump is embroiled in his own domestic political turmoil. He was impeached by the House of Representatives for abuse of office and obstruction of Congress.

The Senate, where his Republican party has a commanding majority, is wrangling over when and how a trial will take place, as the clock ticks down on the November presidential elections.

AFP

EU To Prolong Russia Sanctions

 

EU leaders will renew economic sanctions against Russia when they meet for a summit this week, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Monday.

Maas said he saw no reason to relax the measures imposed on Moscow over its role in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. The sanctions target whole sectors of the Russian economy, including its valuable oil and gas industries.

European measures were first put in place after Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over rebel-held eastern Ukraine in 2014, killing 298 people, and EU leaders have renewed them every six months ever since.

France is hosting a highly-anticipated four-way summit with Russia, Ukraine and Germany on Monday in the hope of making progress towards peace in Ukraine.

French President Emmanuel Macron has been pushing for a thaw between Europe and Russia, but Maas said it was too early to ease sanctions.

“We will continue what we thought was right so far — to extend the sanctions — because the reasons that led to the sanctions continue to exist,” Maas said as he arrived for a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels.

“At the moment, for me there is no reason to change anything in the sanctions policy of the European Union towards Russia.”

Monday’s meeting in Paris of Macron, Russian leader Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is the first so-called “Normandy Format” summit in three years.

It seeks to implement accords signed in Minsk in 2015 that call for the withdrawal of heavy weapons, the restoration of Kiev’s control over its borders, wider autonomy for Donetsk and Lugansk, and the holding of local elections.

Thousands have been killed since pro-Russia militias in eastern Ukraine launched a bid for independence in 2014, kicking off a conflict that deepened Russia’s estrangement from the West.

The EU insists the Minsk accords must be implemented if sanctions are to be lifted or relaxed.

AFP

Syria: Turkey Defiant As US Demands Ceasefire

 

Turkey rebuffed international pressure to curb its military offensive against Kurdish militants in Syria on Wednesday as US President Donald Trump dispatched his deputy Mike Pence to Ankara to demand a ceasefire.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed Turkey’s operation — which has been facilitated by the withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria — would continue.

The only way to solve Syria’s problems, Erdogan told parliament, was for the Kurdish forces to “lay down their arms… destroy all their traps and get out of the safe zone that we have designated.”

But clashes continued across the region, with Kurdish fighters in the border town of Ras al-Ain burning tyres in a bid to blind Ankara’s warplanes and digging in against a ground offensive by Turkish-backed Syrian rebels.

“We are fully prepared to wage battles,” an official from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) told AFP. “The real battle has yet to start.”

Having struck a deal with Damascus over the weekend, Kurdish forces have joined with Syrian troops to take an abandoned US base between Kobani and Ain Issa, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The Turkish operation, now in its second week, has triggered a flurry of diplomacy among major powers.

Trump sent Pence along with his top diplomat Mike Pompeo to Turkey amid the greatest crisis in relations for decades between the NATO allies, with talks due in Ankara early Thursday.

Facing a barrage of criticism in Washington for abandoning the Kurds, Trump has slapped sanctions on three Turkish ministers and raised tariffs on its steel industry.

Pence’s office said the US would pursue “punishing economic sanctions” unless there was “an immediate ceasefire”.

But Trump again dismissed the idea that pulling out 1,000 troops — practically the entire US contingent in the region — had been a betrayal of Kurdish militants who bore the brunt of the fight against the Islamic State group in recent years.

“The Kurds are very well protected,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “By the way, they are not angels.”

– Russia steps in –

Moscow has stepped into the void left by the US withdrawal, deploying patrols to prevent clashes between Syrian and Turkish forces.

Russian TV showed its forces alongside Syrian government troops taking up positions in and around the town of Manbij.

The Kremlin said it would host Erdogan for a meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in the coming days, to ensure the operation does not turn into all-out war between Turkey and Syria.

The Turkish government can count on widespread support for its operation at home, where decades of bloody insurgency by Kurdish militants have killed tens of thousands of people.

But Western powers fear it will endanger the battle against the Islamic State group. Thousands of IS prisoners are held in Kurdish-run camps in the region.

Europe has taken an increasingly tough line with Turkey and several countries, including Britain, France and Germany, have imposed arms embargoes on Turkey over the operation.

– Battle for border town –

The Kurdish-led SDF has mounted a desperate defence to the east of Ras al-Ain, using tunnels, berms and trenches.

A Syrian fighter serving alongside Ankara’s forces said his forces were trying to cut Kurdish supply lines from nearby Hassakeh to facilitate their advance on the town.

Since launching their assault on October 9, Turkey and its Syrian rebel proxies have secured more than 100 kilometres (60 miles) of border, but Ras al-Ain has held out.

Erdogan, who like Trump faces political difficulties at home, wants to create a buffer zone stretching 30 kilometres (20 miles) from the border into Syrian territory.

He wants to destroy Kurdish hopes of an autonomous enclave that could serve as a launching pad for attacks in Turkey, and to resettle some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees Ankara is hosting.

Erdogan said that once the safe zone was established, “stretching from Manbij to the Iraqi border”, then the operation would have “ended on its own”.

The offensive has left dozens of civilians dead, mostly on the Kurdish side, and displaced at least 160,000 people.

Turkey Faces ‘Big Sanctions’ Over Syria Actions – Trump

US President Donald Trump speaks to the press on the South Lawn of the White House before departing in Washington, DC on August 9, 2019.  Nicholas Kamm / AFP

 

US President Donald Trump warned Monday that Turkey faces imminent sanctions over its incursion into northeastern Syria against Kurdish militia, but also signalled Washington would avoid armed conflict with Ankara.

“Big sanctions on Turkey coming!” Trump said, after Turkish attacks stepped up over the weekend on the Syrian Kurds, who had allied with the US war against the Islamic State group.

But Trump also suggested the Kurds were trying to draw the United States into a broader, alleging they were deliberately freeing some Islamic State prisoners “to get us involved” in the conflict.

“Do people really think we should go to war with NATO Member Turkey?” Trump said, ruing “never ending wars.”

“The same people who got us into the Middle East mess are the people who most want to stay there!”

Trump over the weekend ordered around 1,000 US troops in northern Syria pulled back from the border region to avoid getting caught in the fighting.

“We have American forces likely caught between two opposing advancing armies and it’s a very untenable situation,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper told CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday.

AFP

US Sanctions Putin’s Ally, Others Over 2018 Elections Interference

Russian president-elect Vladimir Putin takes the oath of office during a ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow on May 7, 2018. PHOTO: Alexander ASTAFYEV / SPUTNIK / AFP

 

The United States on Monday slapped fresh sanctions on a businessman tied to Russian President Vladimir Putin as well as to a disinformation operation accused of conspiring to manipulate the 2018 midterm elections.

The financial sanctions, which target Russian financier Evgeny Prigozhin, some of his assets and the so-called Internet Research Agency, are the first to be taken under an executive order signed last year President Donald Trump seeking to punish foreign actors accused of interfering in US elections.

“Treasury is targeting the private planes, yacht, and associated front companies of Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the Russian financier behind the Internet Research Agency and its attempts to subvert American democratic processes,” US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.

The announcement follows shortly after a Washington Post report that Trump told senior visiting Russian officials in 2017 he was not concerned by Russian efforts to sway the 2016 election in his favor.

The sanctions announced Monday marked the third time the US had added Prigozhin’s name to its list of foreign nationals formally barred from the US financial system, a move which freezes him out of much of the global financial system as well.

US prosecutors last year indicted the Internet Research Agency as well as alleged employees, charging them with a broad conspiracy to influence the 2016 elections by spreading disinformation in the United States via social media.

The Treasury said Monday the IRA had announced its intention to do likewise in the 2018 midterms by seeking to discredit candidates it viewed as hostile to Moscow.

There was no evidence they were successful in preventing voting, altered vote counts or disrupted vote tallying, the Treasury said.

Treasury announced it was also designating six IRA members — Dzheykhun Nasimi Ogly Aslanov, Mikhail Leonidovich Burchik, Vadim Vladimirovich Podkopaev, Vladimir Dmitriyevich Venkov, Igor Vladimirovich Nesterov and Denis Igorevich Kuzmi — for acting to interfere in the 2018 elections.

Treasury also announced it was placing sanctions on three aircraft and a yacht belonging to Prigozhin and three entities incorporated in the Seychelles which he used to manage these properties.

Identifying the aircraft and vessels serves as a warning to others, the Treasury said, that by continuing to provide service or landing rights they “may also be subject to future sanctions.”

AFP

Iran: Beijing Condemns US Sanctions On Chinese Companies

(FILES)(COMBO) This combination of file pictures created on April 4, 2017 shows US President Donald Trump in St. Louis, Missouri on October 9, 2016 and China’s leader Xi Jinping in Beijing on December 5, 2012. Ed Jones, Paul J. RICHARDS / AFP

 

 

Beijing voiced “strong dissatisfaction” on Thursday after the United States announced sanctions on Chinese companies for buying Iranian oil.

China, which is embroiled in a trade war as well as myriad other disputes with Washington, is believed to be the biggest foreign buyer of Iranian oil.

Speaking to a pressure group opposed to the Iranian regime on the sidelines of the United Nations, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday the actions were in response to violations of unilateral US sanctions.

He said sanctions were being placed both on the companies and on their chief executives.

“China expresses strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition to the sanctions imposed by the United States on Chinese enterprises and individuals,” foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at a regular press briefing on Thursday.

“Despite the legitimate rights and interests of all parties, the United States wielded a wanton stick of sanctions, which is a gross violation of the basic norms of international relations,” Geng said.

 

AFP

Trump Announces New US Sanctions On Iran Central Bank

 

President Donald Trump on Friday announced new sanctions on Iran’s central bank, calling the measures the “highest” sanctions ever imposed on a foreign country by the United States.

“We have just sanctioned the Iranian national bank,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office, later clarifying that he was referring to the Iranian central bank.

“These are the highest sanctions ever imposed on a country,” he said.

Trump earlier this week announced what he said would be substantial new sanctions against Iran, in response to what US officials say was likely Iranian involvement in an attack on Saudi oil facilities.

Bolton Ouster ‘Clear Sign Of Defeat’ Of US Sanctions – Iran

US National Security Advisor John Bolton addresses a press conference following a meeting with his Russian counterpart at the US Mission in Geneva on August 23, 2018. Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

 

The sacking of US national security adviser John Bolton on Tuesday was a “sign clear” that Washington’s campaign of sanctions against Tehran was failing, an aide to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said 

“Bolton’s marginalisation and his subsequent removal isn’t an accident but a clear sign of the defeat of America’s maximum pressure strategy” against Iran, Hesameddin Ashena tweeted.

“Have no doubt that we have the power to manage the US approach towards Iran and will never back down. The blockade of Iran will break.”

US President Donald Trump announced in a post on Twitter that he had asked Bolton to resign.

Trump had a series of disagreements with the hawkish adviser, most notably on Iran which has been subject to crippling US sanctions since last year.

The sanctions were imposed after Washington unilaterally withdrew from a 2015 deal that gave Iran relief from sanctions in return for curbs on its nuclear programme.

Iran Unbowed By US ‘Insults’ – Supreme Leader Khamenei

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei/ AFP

 

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Wednesday that his country remains unbowed by pressure exerted by the United States and its “insults” against the Islamic republic.

“The Iranian nation seeks dignity, independence and progress; that’s why pressures by cruel enemies do not affect Iranians,” Khamenei said in a speech to a crowd in Tehran.

READ ALSO: Pompeo Hails Modi’s Re-Election As India PM

“The graceful Iranian nation has been accused and insulted by the world’s most vicious regime, the US, which is a source of wars, conflicts and plunder,” he said, quoted by his office.

“The Iranian nation won’t give up over such insults,” said Khamenei.

Tehran and Washington have engaged in an escalating war of words following Iran’s shooting down of a US drone last week.

Pressure mounted this week with US President Donald Trump announcing sanctions on Khamenei and other top Iranian officials.

The new measures are the latest against Tehran since Trump last year pulled out of a landmark nuclear accord between Iran and world powers.

AFP

US To Hit Iran With ‘Major’ New Sanctions On Monday – Trump

US President Donald Trump/ AFP

 

President Donald Trump said Saturday that the United States would impose “major” new sanctions on Iran in two days — a move sure to exacerbate tensions with the Islamic republic inflamed by the downing of a US spy plane.

Trump tamped down the threat of military action on Friday when he called off retaliatory strikes at the last minute because the response was not “proportionate” to the drone’s destruction over the Strait of Hormuz.

READ ALSO: Erdogan’s Candidate Concedes Defeat In Istanbul Vote

But he had said military action is still an option and brandished the threat of sanctions ever since.

Now, he has set a timetable for fresh punitive economic measures to heap more pressure on an Iranian economy already reeling from the sanctions in place since Trump withdrew from an international nuclear deal with Tehran.

“We are putting major additional Sanctions on Iran on Monday,” Trump tweeted.

“I look forward to the day that Sanctions come off Iran, and they become a productive and prosperous nation again – The sooner the better!”

Earlier, before heading to Camp David for meetings with his advisors on the situation, Trump said he would be Iran’s “best friend” and that the Islamic republic could be a “wealthy” country if it renounced nuclear weapons.

“We’re not going to have Iran have a nuclear weapon,” Trump told reporters outside the White House.

“When they agree to that, they’re going to have a wealthy country. They’re going to be so happy, and I’m going to be their best friend. I hope that happens.”

“Let’s make Iran great again,” he added, tweaking for the occasion his main domestic political mantra.

Last year, Trump withdrew the United States from the deal designed to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions in exchange for sanctions relief and reinstated measures designed to choke off Iranian oil sales and cripple its economy.

As part of the spike in tensions, the US has beefed up its military presence in the Middle East and blamed Iran for attacks on oil tankers on the Gulf of Oman. Iran denies any responsibility.

“Everyone was saying I’m a war-monger, and now they say I’m a dove,” Trump said Saturday as he was peppered with questions about the Iran drama.

“I think I am neither if you want to know the truth. I’m a man with common sense, and that’s what we need in this country, is common sense.”

Trump insisted it is up to the Iranian leadership how the current crisis plays out.

“If the leadership of Iran behaves badly, then it’s going to be a very, very bad day for them,” he said.

“But hopefully they’re smart and hopefully they really care for their people and not themselves, and hopefully we can get Iran back on to an economic track that’s fantastic, where they’re a really wealthy nation, which would be a wonderful thing,” he added.

AFP

UN Blames Worsening Venezuela Crisis On Sanctions

 

Sanctions have worsened Venezuela’s crippling economic and political crisis, the UN human rights chief said Wednesday, as Washington warned it may expand measures targeting President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government.

UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet said sanctions had exacerbated the crisis but also slammed Maduro’s “violations of civil and political rights” in her annual report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

“Venezuela clearly illustrates the way violations of civil and political rights –- including failure to uphold fundamental freedoms, and the independence of key institutions –- can accentuate a decline of economic and social rights,” said former Chile president Bachelet.

Venezuelans have been battered by an economic meltdown, shortages of food and medicine and a bitter political standoff between Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaido — who has been recognized as interim president by more than 50 countries.

READ ALSO: Lion Mauls Czech Breeder To Death

“This situation has been exacerbated by sanctions,” Bachelet said.

Washington, which has recognized Venezuela’s opposition chief Juan Guaido as the country’s leader, imposed sanctions on Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA last month.

It has also handed Guaido control of Venezuela’s bank accounts in the United States.

The US envoy for the crisis in Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, said Tuesday that Washington was weighing more punitive measures to increase the pressure on Maduro.

Guaido vowed Tuesday to increase pressure on Maduro, who in turn promised to crush a “crazed minority” that wants to remove him from power.

The 35-year-old National Assembly leader returned home to a hero’s welcome on Monday, having defied a ban on leaving the country to embark on a 10-day tour of South American allies. He remains free despite the threat of arrest by the government.

“They thought the pressure had reached its zenith, but it’s only just beginning,” Guaido told reporters.

On Tuesday, a national holiday, he met public sector union leaders.

“Public sector workers have lost practically all their rights, we have no other option but to call for a civic strike,” said Guaido, without giving further details.

Maduro, meanwhile, pressed his supporters to hold “anti-imperialist” marches Saturday to counter fresh protests planned by Guaido.

“Today more than ever, we are victorious against the conspiracy, against blackmail, while a crazy minority continues with their hatred,” he said in his first public comments since Guaido’s return.

When he returned to Caracas — his latest challenge to Maduro’s authority — Guaido announced to tens of thousands of supporters his plans for new protests.

He has vowed to set up a transitional government and hold new elections.

US envoy Abrams said that given Maduro’s low popularity, it would be “a gift” if he decided to run in fresh polls.

“That’s ultimately a decision for Venezuelans to make,” Abrams said.

 ‘Paralyzed public administration’ 

As part of his challenge to Maduro, Guaido is attempting to take control of the state bureaucracy, which he considers having been “kidnapped” through blackmail and persecution.

Unions from the oil industry, basic services, the public bank and local government took part in Tuesday’s meeting, union leader Ana Yanez told AFP.

“The public administration is practically paralyzed. In the town halls, people only go to work three days a week and even then barely half the day,” said Yanez.

Maduro finally made an appearance in the late afternoon to lead a military parade paying tribute to his predecessor Hugo Chavez on the sixth anniversary of the socialist firebrand’s death.

Standing in front of Chavez’s mausoleum, Maduro also called on his supporters to take to the streets on Saturday, to mark “four years since” then-US president Barack Obama first announced sanctions against the socialist government.

Maduro has done this before, calling his own counter-demonstration every time Guaido announces a protest.

Both attract thousands of supporters, but the opposition gatherings usually have the edge in numbers.

Maduro had been active on Twitter earlier in the day, again paying tribute to Chavez.

“Thanks to your teachings and your example we’re continuing the permanent fight against those who tried so many times to extinguish your voice,” wrote Maduro.

During his travels, Guaido met US Vice President Mike Pence and the leaders of Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Chile and Ecuador.

AFP