Saturday, April 25, 2015

Russian Hackers Read Obama’s Unclassified Emails, Officials Say

Mapping Chaos in Yemen

Most of Yemen’s 24 million people live in the west of the country (area in box).


Years of American Involvement

Yemen is home to one of Al Qaeda’s most active branches, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Since 2009, the United States has carried out at least 100 airstrikes in Yemen, according to an analysis by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which has done a detailed analysis of strikes there.
Al Qaeda is not the only terrorist group operating in Yemen. Last week, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for bombings at two Shiite mosques in Sana that killed more than 135 people. The presence of ISIS could drive Yemen into a “full-blown sectarian conflict,” said Katherine Zimmerman, an analyst for the American Enterprise Institute. “What ISIS wants to do is to recreate in Yemen the sectarian war its predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq, stoked there.”

Historical Divisions
South Yemen was a separate country until 1990. The northwest, an area historically called Yemen, is mostly Shiite. The southeast, known as Hadramawat, is home to a mostly Sunni population. “Yemen and the Hadramawat have seldom been part of the same political entity in the past and have maintained separate identities for a long time,” said Michael Izady, a historian and cultural geographer who has mapped ethnicity and religion for Columbia University.

Obama Apologizes After Drone Kills American and Italian Held by Al Qaeda

Warren Weinstein: Kidnapped Government Contractor Asks U.S. To Negotiate With Al Qaeda For His Release

WASHINGTON — An American aid worker and another man held hostage by Al Qaeda were killed in an American drone strike in Pakistan in January, government officials disclosed on Thursday, underscoring the perils of a largely invisible, long-distance war waged through video screens, joysticks and sometimes incomplete intelligence.
Intending to wipe out a compound linked to the terrorist group, the Central Intelligence Agency authorized the attack with no idea that the hostages were being held there despite hundreds of hours of surveillance, the officials said. Even afterward, they said, the agency did not realize at first that it had killed an American it had long sought to rescue, with the wrenching news becoming clear over time.
The violent death of an American at the hands of his own government proved a searing moment in a drone war that has come to define the nation’s battle with Al Qaeda, especially since President Obama took office. Visibly upset, Mr. Obama came to the White House briefing room shortly after his staff issued a written statement announcing the deaths to make a rare personal apology.
“As president and as commander in chief, I take full responsibility for all our counterterrorism operations,” the grim-faced president told reporters as television cameras broadcast his words. “I profoundly regret what happened,” he added. “On behalf of the United States government, I offer our deepest apologies to the families.”
The government is conducting two reviews of the drone strike to determine what went wrong, and the episode could force a broader rethinking of Mr. Obama’s approach to fighting Al Qaeda. Under the president’s policy, drone strikes are to be authorized only when it can be concluded to a “near certainty” that there will not be civilian casualties.
The two hostages, Warren Weinstein, an American kidnapped in 2011, and Giovanni Lo Porto, an Italian seized in 2012, were killed Jan. 15 in a remote area in Pakistan known as a Qaeda sanctuary, officials said. An American affiliated with Al Qaeda, Ahmed Farouq, was killed in the same strike. Another American member of Al Qaeda, Adam Gadahn, was killed in a separate strike in the same region Jan. 19, according to the officials.
Just as the C.I.A. did not know the hostages were present, it also did not know that the American Qaeda members were at the strike targets and they had not been specifically targeted, officials said. Mr. Farouq was the deputy head of Al Qaeda’s relatively new branch in India and was not publicly identified as an American until Thursday. Mr. Gadahn was better known as a Qaeda spokesman.
Officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence operations said it took weeks to piece together what happened.

Even the NYT Editorial Board Admits That Obama's "Successful" Yemen Is Really "The Catastrophe In Yemen"

The aftermath of an explosion in Sana, Yemen, on Monday. Credit Yahya Arhab/European Pressphoto Agency.

Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen’s civil war was always a risky gamble. Now there’s evidence showing just how damaging four weeks of airstrikes have been: more than 1,000 civilians killed, more than 4,000 wounded, and 150,000 displaced. Meanwhile, the fighting and a Saudi-led blockade have deprived Yemenis of food, fuel, water and medicines, causing what a Red Cross official called a humanitarian catastrophe. Yemen has long been a weak state, and with each day it draws closer to collapse.
The Saudis claim the airstrikes have punished the Houthi rebels, who have tried to take over Yemen, by wiping out many of their weapons and military installations around the country. But the rebels, who are supported by Shiite Iran, are still on the march. The Saudis, who lead a coalition of Sunni Arab nations, are nowhere near to restoring the Yemeni president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Mr. Hadi was ousted by the Houthis in January and driven into exile in Saudi Arabia.
The Obama administration has helped the Saudis with intelligence and tactical advice and by deploying warships off the Yemeni coast. Now it is wisely urging them to end the bombing. The White House seems to have realized that the Saudis appear to have no credible strategy for achieving their political goals, or even managing their intervention. On Tuesday, they declared a halt to most military operations, only to resume bombing hours later. More airstrikes followed on Thursday as warplanes from the coalition struck Houthi targets around the Yemeni cities of Aden and Ibb.
The Sunnis constitute a majority in Yemen. Saudi Arabia and other Sunni countries intervened because they feared that a Houthi takeover would extend the influence of Iran, which also has footholds in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. That fear appears to be exaggerated in Yemen. Nevertheless, the intervention has threatened to turn what has been a civil war between competing branches of Islam into a wider regional struggle involving Iran.
Saudi Arabia has been further unnerved by the possibility of a nuclear deal involving the United States, other major powers and Iran. Such a deal, it fears, would help make Iran the dominant regional power and spur reconciliation with the United States, thus putting Saudi Arabia’s security relationship with Washington in jeopardy. This has left American policy makers with a formidable diplomatic challenge: reassuring the Sunni nations of continued support while trying to see if Iran, an adversary since 1979, could be nudged into a more productive relationship.
The deployment of the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier and other warships to the Arabian Sea this week was intended as proof of that reassurance. American officials said they were prepared to intercept a nine-ship Iranian convoy headed for Yemen and believed to be carrying weapons for the rebels. Fortunately, the Iranian vessels turned around, avoiding a possible confrontation.
The fighting needs to end, relief supplies need to be delivered quickly and a political dialogue needs to be restarted. Before the outbreak of the Houthi offensive, a United Nations-led diplomatic initiative had made some progress, but the Security Council never gave it enough support and attention. And now, the United Nations official who led the negotiations, Jamal Benomar, a Moroccan diplomat, has resigned and returned to New York.
Finding a political solution will not be easy; it may not even be possible. For one thing, it will require Saudi Arabia to accept the Houthis, an indigenous Yemeni group, as part of the governing power structure. But such a solution is the only hope for bringing some stability to the country and refocusing international and Yemeni resources on Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the most lethal Al Qaeda affiliate, which is the real beneficiary of the widening chaos. [source]

US Aircraft Carrier Enters Persian Gulf As Iranian Convoy Moves Away From Yemen

Yemeni children hold rifles at a tribal gathering organised by the Shiite Huthi movement in Sanaa.

Washington (CNN)  The USS Theodore Roosevelt entered the Persian Gulf Saturday to conduct what a U.S. defense official called routine maritime security operations, days after U.S. warships were deployed to the Yemeni coast to counter an Iranian convoy.
Multiple U.S. officials have said the American ships had been deployed to the region to dissuade the Iranian convoy, which included armed ships, from docking in Yemen, where Iran has been supporting and arming the Houthi rebellion.
The Iranian ships turned away from Yemen on Thursday, and were still sailing northeast toward Iran on Saturday, a U.S. defense official said. They were still in international waters off the coast of Yemen on Saturday, the official said, adding that the convoy was moving slowly and wasn't expected to reach the Strait of Hormuz for several days.
On Friday, Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren told reporters that there had been no communication between Iranian and U.S. forces at any point.
"I think it's fair to say that this appears to be a de-escalation of some of the tensions that were being discussed earlier in the week," Warren said.
Although U.S. administration spokesmen had downplayed the link between the U.S. warships and the Iranian convoy, President Barack Obama said earlier this week that the U.S. was sending "very direct messages" warning Iran against attempts to arm the Houthis.
U.S. officials had stressed this week that Iranian attempts to arm Houthi rebels would be a violation of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions, and officials have been urging the Iranians to keep away from the turbulent Gulf nation.
The U.S. has walked a fine line as it looks to quell the situation in Yemen. It has sought to reassure Gulf allies like Saudi Arabia that are engaged in a proxy war with Iran in Yemen -- allies that support the deposed Yemeni government that had been cooperating with the U.S. in fighting an al Qaeda affiliate. But it is also looking to keep tensions with Iran to a minimum as American diplomats work to secure a final deal on Iran's nuclear program.
Those negotiations got underway again earlier this week with diplomats from the U.S., five other world powers and Iran working to seal a final accord to curb Iran's nuclear program and provide Tehran sanctions relief by the June deadline for a deal.[source]

Mysterious X-37B Military Space Plane to Fly Again Next Month

Artist's illustration of the U.S. Air Force's X-37B space plane in orbit. The mysterious spacecraft is scheduled to launch on its fourth mission on May 20, 2015.
Credit: NASA Marshall Space Flight Center

The United States Air Force's X-37B space plane will launch on its fourth mystery mission next month.
The unmanned X-37B space plane, which looks like a miniature version of NASA's now-retired space shuttle orbiter, is scheduled to blast off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on May 20.
"We are excited about our fourth X-37B mission," Randy Walden, director of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, said in a statement. "With the demonstrated success of the first three missions, we’re able to shift our focus from initial checkouts of the vehicle to testing of experimental payloads." [See photos of the X-37B's third mission]
The X-37B's payloads and specific activities are classified, so it's unclear exactly what the spacecraft does while zipping around the Earth. But Air Force officials have revealed a few clues about the upcoming mission.
"The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) and the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office (AFRCO) are investigating an experimental propulsion system on the X-37B on Mission 4," Capt. Chris Hoyler, an Air Force spokesman, told via email.
"AFRCO will also host a number of advance materials onboard the X-37B for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to study the durability of various materials in the space environment," Hoyler added.
The Air Force owns two X-37B space planes, both of which were built by Boeing's Phantom Works division. The solar-powered spacecraft are about 29 feet long by 9.5 feet tall (8.8 by 2.9 meters), with a wingspan of 15 feet (4.6 m) and a payload bay the size of a pickup-truck bed. The X-37B launches vertically atop a rocket and lands horizontally on a runway, like the space shuttle did.
One of the two X-37B vehicles flew the program's first and third missions, which were known as OTV-1 and OTV-3, respectively. ("OTV" is short for "Orbital Test Vehicle.") The other spacecraft flew OTV-2. Air Force officials have not revealed which space plane will be going to orbit on the upcoming mission.
OTV-1 launched in April 2010 and landed in December of that year, staying in orbit for 225 days. OTV-2 blasted off in March 2011 and circled Earth for 469 days, coming down in June 2012. OTV-3 launched in December 2012 and stayed aloft for a record-breaking 675 days, finally landing in October 2014.
A recovery team processes the U.S. Air Force's X-37B space plane after the robotic spacecraft's successful landing at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on Oct. 17, 2014. The touchdown marked the end of the X-37B’s third space mission.
Credit: Boeing

If Air Force officials know how long OTV-4 is going to last, they're not saying.
"The X-37B is designed for an on-orbit duration of 270 days," Hoyler said. "Longer missions have been demonstrated. As with previous missions, the actual duration will depend on test objectives, on-orbit vehicle performance and conditions at the landing facility."
The secrecy surrounding the X-37B and its payloads has fueled speculation in some quarters that the vehicle could be a space weapon of some sort. But Air Force officials have repeatedly refuted that notion.
"The primary objectives of the X-37B are twofold: reusable spacecraft technologies for America's future in space, and operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined, on Earth," Air Force officials wrote in on online X-37B fact sheet. "Technologies being tested in the program include advanced guidance, navigation and control; thermal protection systems; avionics; high-temperature structures and seals; conformal reusable insulation, lightweight electromechanical flight systems; and autonomous orbital flight, re-entry and landing."[source]

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Iran Shows Indignation At US Military Demonstration

Ahmad Reza Pourdastan, Commander of Iran’s Ground Forces lashed out at US foreign policy and rhetoric in a statement broadcast on Wednesday’s “CNN Newsroom.” Pourdastan said, according to CNN’s translation, “at the moment, we consider the United States to be a threat to us, because its policies and actions are threatening to us. We would like the US to change its rhetoric and tone of voice so that our nation could have more trust in US military leadership.”

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

U.S. Carrier Moving Off Coast of Yemen To block Iranian Arms Shipments, Leaving Previous Watch Over ISIS

An F/A-18C Hornet from Marine Strike Fighter Attack Squadron 251 is launched from the flight deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt. (Photo: MC3 Josh Petrosino, U.S. Navy, European Pressphoto Agency)
WASHINGTON — The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt has moved off the coast of Yemen to prepare to intercept potential shipments of Iranian weapons to the rebels fighting the U.S.-backed government of Yemen, Pentagon officials said Monday.
Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said the carrier and ships supporting her had been in the Persian Gulf. They moved to the waters near Yemen because of increased instability there, he said.
The Roosevelt is also tracking a convoy of Iranian ships headed to the Gulf of Aden, said two Defense officials speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the Iranian vessels. The Iranians have been supporting Houthi rebels in Yemen.
The Roosevelt began steaming toward Yemen Sunday, said a Navy official who was not authorized to speak about the issue publicly. With the Roosevelt, the Navy now has nine warships off Yemen, the Navy official said. The Navy usually has amphibious ships for landing troops and gear in the region. The Roosevelt "significantly" adds to the Navy's firepower there.
The Pentagon has been tracking the progress of the Iranian ships since last week, one of the Defense officials said. The Navy is prepared to intercept the ships.

The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt conducts maritime security operations in the Arabian Sea on April 21. (Photo: MC3 Athony N. Hilkowski, U.S. Navy, via European Pressphoto Agency)

Moving the Roosevelt is viewed by the Pentagon as significant but not necessarily a prelude to conflict.
If the Iranians are delivering arms and violating United Nations resolutions, it could trigger a confrontation with the Navy, according to a third senior Defense Department official, also speaking on condition of anonymity. It's too soon to tell if that will happen, that official said.
The Houthis are Shiite Muslims, while the Yemeni government has been dominated by Sunni Muslims.
Iran, which is also primarily Shiite, has been backing the Houthis, while Sunni nations, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are supporting the government.
Last month, the Pentagon evacuated Special Operations forces that had been assisting the government in Yemen. Terrorists associated with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are intent on hitting U.S. and western targets and have been a particular concern of the Pentagon's.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter foreshadowed the Roosevelt's move last week when he told reporters that the Pentagon would look for alternatives to fighting AQAP.

"It's easier for us to operate against a group like that if we have the cooperation of a stable government as was the case in the past," Carter said. "But if we don't have a stable government, as is the case in the current circumstance, we have to use other means to protect ourselves, and that's what we're doing."
The guided-missile cruiser USS Normandy is accompanying the Roosevelt, the Navy said.
Thpan style="background-color: white;">e Navy has intercepted Iranian arms shipments to the terror groups Hamas and Hezbollah in the past, said Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution.
"Perhaps we will do it again," O'Hanlon said. "I'd hardly rule it out."[source]

Obama Kept Iran's Short Breakout Time a Secret

The Barack Obama administration has estimated for years that Iran was at most three months away from enriching enough nuclear fuel for an atomic bomb. But the administration only declassified this estimate at the beginning of the month, just in time for the White House to make the case for its Iran deal to Congress and the public.
Speaking to reporters and editors at our Washington bureau on Monday, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz acknowledged that the U.S. has assessed for several years that Iran has been two to three months away from producing enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon. When asked how long the administration has held this assessment, Moniz said: "Oh quite some time." He added: "They are now, they are right now spinning, I mean enriching with 9,400 centrifuges out of their roughly 19,000. Plus all the . . . . R&D work. If you put that together it's very, very little time to go forward. That's the 2-3 months."
Brian Hale, a spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, confirmed to me Monday that the two-to-three-month estimate for fissile material was declassified on April 1.
Here is the puzzling thing: When Obama began his second term in 2013, he sang a different tune. He emphasized that Iran was more than a year away from a nuclear bomb, without mentioning that his intelligence community believed it was only two to three months away from making enough fuel for one, long considered the most challenging task in building a weapon. Today Obama emphasizes that Iran is only two to three months away from acquiring enough fuel for a bomb, creating a sense of urgency for his Iran agreement.
Back in 2013, when Congress was weighing new sanctions on Iran and Obama was pushing for more diplomacy, his interest was in tamping down that sense of urgency. On the eve of a visit to Israel, Obama told Israel's Channel Two, "Right now, we think it would take over a year or so for Iran to actually develop a nuclear weapon, but obviously we don’t want to cut it too close."
On Oct. 5 of that year, Obama contrasted the U.S. view of an Iranian breakout with that of Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who at the time said Iran was only six months away from nuclear capability. Obama told the Associated Press, "Our assessment continues to be a year or more away. And in fact, actually, our estimate is probably more conservative than the estimates of Israeli intelligence services."
Ben Caspit, an Israeli journalist and columnist for Al-Monitor, reported last year that Israel's breakout estimate was also two to three months away.
A year ago, after the nuclear talks started, Secretary of State John Kerry dropped the first hint about the still-classified Iran breakout estimate. He told a Senate panel, "I think it is fair to say, I think it is public knowledge today, that we are operating with a time period for a so-called breakout of about two months."
David Albright, a former weapons inspector and president of the Institute for Science and International Security, told me administration officials appeared to be intentionally unspecific in 2013, when the talking points used the 12-months-plus timeline. "They weren't clear at all about what this one-year estimate meant, but people like me who said let's break it down to the constituent pieces in terms of time to build a bomb were rebuffed," he said. Albright's group released its own breakout timetable that focused solely on the production of highly enriched uranium, not the weapon itself. It concluded Iran was potentially less than a month away.
When USA Today asked a spokeswoman for the National Security Council about Albright's estimate, she responded that the intelligence community maintained a number of estimates for how long Iran would take to produce enough material for a weapon.
"They have made it very hard for those of us saying, let's just focus on weapons-grade uranium, there is this shorter period of time and not a year," Albright told me. "If you just want a nuclear test device to blow up underground, I don't think you need a year."
This view is supported by a leaked document from the International Atomic Energy Agency, first published by the Associated Press in 2009. Albright's group published excerpts from the IAEA assessment that concluded Iran "has sufficient information to be able to design and produce a workable implosion nuclear device based upon (highly enriched uranium) as the fission fuel."
Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA analyst who is now an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution, told me that most of the technical estimates about an Iranian breakout were not nearly as precise as they are sometimes portrayed in the press. "The idea there is such a thing as a hard and fast formula for this is nonsense," he said. "All the physicists come up with different answers depending on what inputs they use."
In this way, Obama's new, more alarmist figure of two to three months provides a key selling point for the framework reached this month in Switzerland. When Obama announced the preliminary agreement on April 2, he said one benefit was that if it were finalized, "even if it violated the deal, for the next decade at least, Iran would be a minimum of a year away from acquiring enough material for a bomb."
Hence the frustration of Representative Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. "We've been researching their claim that a deal would lengthen the breakout time for Iran from two to three months to a year," he told me of the administration. "We're just trying to confirm any of their numbers and we can't confirm or make sense of what they are referencing."
Nunes should hurry. The Iranian nuclear deal is scheduled to breakout in less than three months.[source]

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Israel: Russian decision on S-300 anti-missile system proves dangers of Iran deal

S-300 anti-aircraft missile system at a parade in Moscow. (photo credit:WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/WWW.KREMLIN.RU)

 Israel on Monday warned that Russia’s decision to lift its five-year ban on the delivery of S-300 air-defense missile system to Iran proves that the deal to curb Tehran’s nuclear program will only strengthen it militarily.

“Instead of demanding that Iran desist from the terrorist activity that it is carrying out in the Middle East and throughout the world, it is being allowed to arm itself with advanced weapons that will only increase its aggression,” Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz said on Monday.

The Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree ending a self-imposed ban on delivering the S-300 missile system to Iran, removing a major irritant between the two, after Moscow canceled a corresponding contract in 2010 under pressure from the West.

The United States and Israel had lobbied Russia to block the missile sale before it did so in 2010, saying the S-300 system could be used to shield Iran’s nuclear facilities from possible future air strikes.

US Secretary of State John Kerry spoke by telephone with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Monday to express his concern about the shipment of S-300 missiles to Iran.

The two men also talked more globally about the framework agreement between the six world powers and Iran, which was negotiated earlier this month in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Lavrov told the Russian News Agency TASS that the S-300 ban is no longer necessary in light of the framework agreement.

He added that the system is defensive, hence would pose no threat to Israel.

“We see no need to continue doing this given progress in talks on Iran’s nuclear program and the absolutely legitimate nature of the forthcoming deal,” he said.

“S-300 is an air-defense missile system, which is of a purely defensive nature. It is not designed for attacks and will not put at risk the security of any regional state, including Israel,” Lavrov said.

But US State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters in Washington, “It is not constructive at this time for Russia to move forward with this. Given Iran’s destabilizing actions in the region... this is not the time to be selling those kind of systems to [Iran].”

Harf pledged that the US would protect its allies in the region, including Israel, against Iran.

She added that the US does not believe the decision would impact the continued negotiations between the six world powers and Iran toward a final agreement by the end of June.

“We see this as separate from the negotiations,” Harf said.

Steintiz disagreed and said that Russia’s decision to lift the ban is a sign of how dangerous the Iran deal was.

“This is the direct result of the legitimacy that Iran is receiving from the nuclear deal being made with it. This also proves that the economic momentum in Iran that will come in the wake of the lifting of the sanctions will be exploited for armaments and not used for the welfare of the Iranian people,” he said.

The US has said that this deal will make the region safer, because it will curb Iran’s nuclear program by extending its breakout time to develop nuclear weapons from a few months to a year’s time.

In a phone conference with Israeli reporters earlier in the day, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman – who heads the US negotiating team in the Iran talks – said that a military strike against the Islamic Republic would not eliminate its nuclear program, rather only set it back by a few years.

She argued that the framework agreement is therefore the best option to keep Iran from producing nuclear weapons for an extended period of time.

Israel has argued that the best option is continued and increased sanctions.

On Monday night Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned of what would happen with Iran once sanctions were lifted when he spoke at an Israel Police ceremony in Beit Shemesh.

“Iran is receiving legitimacy to continue these actions and when the sanctions are lifted shortly, if indeed the deal is approved, it will receive billions of dollars to finance its war and terrorism machines, with international legitimacy.

Before our very eyes an absurd reality is taking shape in which the key to our fate and the future of the Middle East is liable to be delivered into the hands of the fanatical Iranian regime,” he said.

“An agreement full of holes with Iran will not ensure regional stability; a vigorous and resolute policy that prevents it from arming itself with nuclear weapons and compels it to halt its takeover of other nations would,” Netanyahu added.

Russia’s lifting of the S-300 anti-missile ban was not the only Iranian restriction that it lifted.

A senior Russian government official said separately that Moscow has started supplying grain, equipment, and construction materials to Iran in exchange for crude oil under a barter deal.

Sources told Reuters more than a year ago that a deal worth up to $20 billion was being discussed and would involve Russia buying up to 500,000 barrels of Iranian oil a day.

Officials from the two countries have issued contradictory statements since then on whether a deal has been signed, but Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Monday one was already being implemented.

“I wanted to draw your attention to the rolling out of the oilfor- goods deal, which is on a very significant scale,” Ryabkov told a briefing with members of the upper house of parliament on the talks with Iran.

“In exchange for Iranian crude oil supplies, we are delivering certain products. This is not banned or limited under the current sanctions regime.”

He declined to give further details. Russia’s Agriculture Ministry declined comment and the Energy Ministry did not respond to request for comment. There was no comment from Iran.

Iran is the third largest buyer of Russian wheat, and Moscow and Tehran have been discussing the oil-for-goods barter deal for more than a year.

Ryabkov suggested Russia had high hopes that its steady support for Iran would pay off in energy cooperation once international sanctions against Tehran are lifted.

“It takes two to tango. We are ready to provide our services and I am sure they will be pretty advantageous compared to other countries,” he said. “We never gave up on Iran in a difficult situation... Both for oil and gas, I think the prospects for our cooperation should not be underestimated.”

He also reiterated Moscow’s view that an arms embargo on Iran should be lifted once a final nuclear deal is sealed.

Sanctions have cut Iran’s oil exports to about 1.1 million barrels per day from 2.5 million in 2012.

Analysts say Iran is unlikely to see a major boost in exports before next year.

One upper house lawmaker asked Ryabkov whether lifting sanctions on Tehran could undermine Russia’s position on global energy markets, including as the main gas supplier to Europe.

“I am not confident as yet that the Iranian side would be ready to carry out supplies of natural gas from its fields quickly and in large quantities to Europe. This requires infrastructure that is difficult to build,” he said.

Leonid Ivashov, a retired Russian general who now heads the Moscow- based Center for Geopolitical Analysis think tank, said the move is part of a race for future contracts in Iran.

“If we now delay and leave Iran waiting, then tomorrow, when sanctions are fully lifted, Washington and its allies will get Iran’s large market,” RIA news agency quoted him as saying.[source]

Reuters contributed to this report.