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Iran appealed to the UN Security Council on Thursday to stop the US from conducting what it called heightened “military adventurism” in the Gulf and the Oman Sea, including dispatching nuclear-capable bombers to the region, declaring that it did not want conflict but would defend itself if necessary.

Meanwhile, a US official with direct knowledge of the latest intelligence told CNN Friday that some Iranian maritime forces in the Gulf ramped up their readiness levels in the last 48 hours. Earlier this week, defense officials told CNN new intelligence showed Iran has been moving short range ballistic missiles into Iraq.

The quickening military activity is matched by rhetoric. The head of Iran’s elite Quds military force suggested Friday that retaliation for US crimes may come from “people from your own house.” President Donald Trump, who reportedly asked for military options to deal with Iran in November, tweeted last week that he will “hold Iran responsible” should any Americans be killed.
And Israeli media amplified an Arab newspaper report that cited unnamed US sources saying Israel and Saudi Arabia are lobbying Trump to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities before he leaves office.

‘Genuinely concerned’

The drumbeat of veiled threats, public messaging and military posturing has quickened in the days before the January 3 anniversary of the assassination of Gen. Qasem Soleimani, a date that US officials fear Iran may mark by striking back.

Those concerns come as some analysts in Washington speculate Trump could trigger a conflict with Iran to distract from his failing, baseless attempts to overturn his election loss and to complicate his successor’s plans for the region. “I’m genuinely concerned that the President could be thinking about saddling President-elect Biden with some kind of military operation on his way out the door,” said Tom Nichols, an international affairs expert who teaches at the US Naval War College.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif himself charged Thursday that Trump is creating a pretext for war.

All this is playing out as Biden prepares to enact his own policies after his January 20 inauguration. The President-elect wants to ease Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran, resume engagement and return to the Iran nuclear deal, all steps that hawks in the Trump administration vehemently oppose — and all reasons, some analysts say, that if Iran conducts any kind of attack, it would be carefully calibrated.

“Iran represents a real threat to US national security, particularly during this period of heightened risk due to the upcoming anniversary of the Soleimani assassination,” said Sam Vinograd, a former National Security Council official and CNN analyst.

However, Vinograd added, “I do think Iran will calibrate any attack associated with this anniversary because they do not want to box themselves in ahead of Biden coming into office and ostensibly restarting nuclear negotiations that would lead to the lifting of sanctions.”

US Central Command said last week that an attack on Baghdad’s International Zone near the US embassy was “almost certainly conducted by an Iranian-backed rogue militia group.” On Friday, Russia’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Association announced Iran would increase its uranium enrichment to levels it achieved before the 2015 nuclear deal — a step that will likely be seen as another provocation.

As the clock ticks down to January 3, Vinograd noted, “There is a lot of saber rattling going on.”

Soleimani’s successor on Friday marked the death of the former Quds Force commander’s death by pledging that “those who took part in this assassination and crime will not be safe on earth. It’s definite.” Gen. Esmail Ghaani told the crowd gathered for a ceremony marking Soleimani’s death that “what they have seen so far have been just some part of revenge, but they should wait for hard revenge. The time and place will be determined by the dear Resistance Front forces.”

Calling Trump a “foolish man” under the sway of Israel and Saudi Arabia, Ghaani warned that “it’s possible, even from inside your own house, there may emerge someone who will retaliate for your crime.”

Nichols told CNN that tensions are climbing at a time when Trump has fired senior civilian leaders at the Pentagon, replacing them with acting officials “who really don’t answer to anybody but Donald Trump.”

Nichols also referred to complaints by Biden and his national security team that the Pentagon transition team is not adequately briefing them, including on US force posture overseas and what threats the US faces.

“Because there is no transparency and because we simply have no way of knowing what the President is up to, I think that should raise some concerns,” Nichols said.

‘Twisted intelligence’

Vinograd raised another concern, telling CNN, “Trump and members of his team have fabricated or twisted intelligence, including on Iran to suit personal or political objectives. It is no secret that striking Iran has been on President Trump’s bucket list for some time and with 19 days to go, he may want to go out with a bang.”

Nichols noted that “Iran is a real problem. I mean, the President may well have to do something. … The problem here is that Donald Trump, given the way he’s governed for four years, simply has not earned the benefit of the doubt on these kinds of actions.”

Iran appealed to the United Nations Secretary General to help ease tensions Thursday, asking that the US be made to abide by international law and stop “destabilizing” such a “volatile region as the Persian Gulf.”

The letter from Iran’s ambassador to the UN cited the US dispatch of advanced weaponry to the region. The Defense Department sent nuclear-capable B52 bombers to the region on Wednesday, after earlier announcing the transit of a nuclear submarine through the Gulf.

The US also currently has multiple surface warships in the Persian Gulf capable of firing Tomahawk missiles and 40,000 to 50,000 US military personnel spread out across the region, though many are not in direct combat roles, according to the Pentagon.

The Iranian letter said that while “Iran does not seek conflict, our ability and resolute determination to protect our people, to defend our security, sovereignty, territorial integrity and vital interests as well as to respond decisively to any threat or use of force against Iran must not be underestimated.”

The US official with direct knowledge of the latest intelligence said some Iranian maritime forces in the Persian Gulf have raised their readiness levels in the last 48 hours, adding that it’s not clear if the moves are defensive or are signals of a pending attack against US interests.

The official said the US does not believe the Iranian maritime moves are typical of training at sea.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the B-52 bombers dispatched to the region were nuclear armed. They are nuclear capable.

CNN’s Barbara Starr and Richard Roth contributed to this report.



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Pelosi to move forward with impeachment if Pence doesn’t act to remove Trump

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“In protecting our Constitution and our Democracy, we will act with urgency, because this President represents an imminent threat to both,” Pelosi said in the letter to Democrats on Sunday night laying out next steps.

The House will try to pass a measure on Monday imploring Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment, through which he and the Cabinet declare Trump “incapable of executing the duties of his office, after which the Vice President would immediately exercise powers as acting president.” If Republicans object, as is virtually certain, Democrats will pass the bill via a roll call vote on Tuesday.

“We are calling on the Vice President to respond within 24 hours,” Pelosi wrote. “Next, we will proceed with bringing impeachment legislation to the Floor.”

But it’s not clear when exactly the Senate will take up the House’s measure. The Senate isn’t scheduled to return until Jan. 19, but will hold pro forma sessions on Tuesday and Friday. In theory, a senator could try to pass the House resolution by unanimous consent, but as of now it appears unlikely that it would pass.

On Monday, multiple House Democrats plan to introduce impeachment resolutions that would become the basis of any impeachment article considered by the House later this week.

Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who will introduce an article of impeachment against Trump on Monday, said on Sunday that roughly 200 Democrats have co-sponsored the measure.

Currently, 211 voting members (plus three nonvoting members) support Cicilline’s legislation, and they are hoping to reach 217 voting members by Monday morning, enough for the House to impeach Trump, one Democratic source familiar with the matter told POLITICO.

A small number of Democrats have opted not to co-sign the bill, but privately say they will vote to support the resolution on the floor, the source added.

The impeachment effort in the House is likely to be bipartisan, with Democrats expecting at least one GOP lawmaker — Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois — to sign on. A handful of other House Republicans are seriously weighing it, according to several sources, though those lawmakers are waiting to see how Democrats proceed, and some are concerned about dividing the country even further.

Among the GOP members whom Democrats are keeping an eye on are Reps. John Katko of New York, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Fred Upton of Michigan, Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington.

Across the Capitol, at least two Republicans — Sens. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — have called on Trump to resign. On Saturday, Toomey told Fox News, “I do think the president committed impeachable offenses,” but told CNN the next day that he does not believe there is enough time to impeach.

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) has also said he would consider articles of impeachment.

Another option has emerged among some Republican and moderate Democratic circles — censuring Trump — though it remains highly unlikely to advance.

A censure resolution would gain far more support in the GOP than impeachment. Some Republicans have privately been pushing for that route and are trying to get Biden on board, according to GOP sources. That group of Republicans is also warning that impeachment could destroy Biden’s reputation with Republicans.

But censure is considered a nonstarter in an incensed House Democratic Caucus, where members see it as a slap on the wrist that gives Republicans an easy out.

The Democrats’ enormous step toward impeachment on Sunday comes after Pelosi and other top Democrats held a private call on Saturday night in which they discussed the potential ramifications that a lengthy impeachment trial could have on Biden’s presidency.

Democratic leaders discussed several options to limit the political effects on Biden’s first 100 days, with one option — floated by House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) — for the House to delay the start of an impeachment trial in the Senate by holding on to the article of impeachment.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has sent out a memo to senators explaining that the Senate could not take up impeachment until Jan. 19 at the earliest, absent unanimous consent.

A final decision has not been made, and House Democrats will discuss the matter on a 2 p.m. caucus call on Monday.

Lawmakers are already privately expressing concerns about returning to the Capitol for multiple days this week, worried about both a potential coronavirus outbreak and whether the building is secure, given how easily an armed pro-Trump mob invaded on Wednesday.

The Capitol physician urged House lawmakers and staff to get tested in a memo Sunday, saying they might have been exposed to someone who had the virus while huddling for safety in a large committee room for hours on Wednesday. During the hourslong lockdown, several Republican members refused to wear masks despite being offered them by Democrats worried about the spread of the deadly virus.

Melanie Zanona, Olivia Beavers and Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.

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Matt Hancock Scraps “Unnecessary Training Modules” Blamed For Slowing Vaccine Rollout

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Matt Hancock has agreed to remove some of the training modules required for volunteers to sign up to deliver the Covid-19 vaccine (PA)


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Matt Hancock said people will no longer need to undertake training including an anti-terrorism course to give the coronavirus jab after MPs said “bureaucratic rubbish” was delaying mass vaccination.

It comes as MPs called for the government to produce targets for the number of people given immunity before lockdown can be lifted.

The health secretary said a series of “unnecessary training modules” are being scrapped to speed up the process of getting people qualified to deliver the jab.

Speaking in the Commons, Sir Edward Leigh said he was shown by his fellow the Tory MP, a qualified GP, the “ridiculous form” he had filled out to start delivering the vaccine.

“When he’s inoculating an old lady, he’s not going to ask her if she’s come into contact with Jihadis or whatever, so the Secretary has got to cut through all this bureaucratic rubbish,” he said.

In response Mr Hancock said: “I am a man after Sir Edward’s heart and I can tell the House that we have removed a series of the unnecessary training modules that had been put in place, including fire safety, terrorism and others.

“I’ll write to him with the full panoply of the training that is not required and we have been able to remove, and we made this change as of this morning and I am glad to say it is enforced.

“I am a fan of busting bureaucracy and in this case I agree with him that it is not necessary to undertake anti-terrorism training in order to inject vaccines.”

Dr Fox had earlier challenged Boris Johnson to drop the “bureaucracy” and “political correctness” of the forms vaccine volunteers must fill out.

He told MPs: “As a qualified but non-practising doctor, I volunteered to help with the scheme and would urge others to do the same. 

“But, can I ask the Prime Minister why I’ve been required to complete courses on conflict resolution, equality, diversity and human rights, moving and handling loads and preventing radicalisation in order to give a simple Covid jab?”

Mr Johnson said he had been “assured by the Health Secretary that all such obstacles, all such pointless pettifoggery has been removed”.

The government has been attempting to recruit thousands of volunteers to help with a mass vaccination programme, and with the recent approval of the more easily deliverable Oxford/AstraZeneca version has today revealed the location of seven mass vaccination centres set to open next week.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman told journalists at a briefing they would be at Robertson House in Stevenage, the ExCel Centre in London, the Centre for Life in Newcastle, the Etihad Tennis Centre in Manchester, Epsom Downs Racecourse in Surrey, Ashton Gate Stadium in Bristol and Millennium Point in Birmingham, and it is expected they will be run with a combination of NHS staff and volunteers.

But so far the government has not said how many people need to be inoculated before it has an impact on the coronavirus restrictions.

Mr Hancock was asked by a number of MPs if the measures could be eased once the top few tiers in the vaccine priority list had been clear.

Former Conservative chief whip Mark Harper said once the top four groups, which includes care home residents and staff, frontline NHS workers, the clinically extremely vulnerable and everyone over 70 “we’ve taken care therefore of 80% of the risk of death”.

Adding: “What possible reason is there at that point for not rapidly relaxing the restrictions that are in place on the rest of our country?”

The health secretary replied: “We have to see the impact of that vaccination on the reduction in the number of deaths, which I very much hope that we will see at that point, and so that is why we will take this – an evidence-led move down through the tiers, when we’ve broken the link, I hope, between cases and hospitalisations and deaths.”

The ex-Tory minister and another doctor, Andrew Murrison, said: “The logic of anticipating what is going to happen in two or three or four weeks’ time from the number of cases we are getting at the moment is that we can do the same in reverse.

“That is to say, when we have a sufficient number of people vaccinated up we can anticipate in two or three or four weeks’ time how many deaths have been avoided. 

“That means, since it cuts both ways he will be able to make a decision on when we should end these restrictions.”

Mr Hancock replied: “The logic of the case that Dr Murrison makes is the right logic and we want to see that happen in empirical evidence on the ground.

“This hope for the weeks ahead doesn’t take away, though, from the serious and immediate threat posed now.”

The Cabinet minister said the challenge for the government is to increase the amount of doses available, claiming “the current rate-limiting factor on the vaccine rollout is the supply of approved, tested, safe vaccine”.

He added: ”We are working with both AstraZeneca and Pfizer to increase that supply as fast as possible and they’re doing a brilliant job.”

But Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth called for the government to ramp up its vaccination programme to six million doses a week.

He told the Commons: “The Prime Minister has promised almost 14 million will be offered the vaccine by mid-Feb. That depends on around two million doses a week on average.

“Both [Mr Hancock] and the Prime Minister have reassured us in recent days that it’s doable based on orders.

“But in the past ministers have told us that they had agreements for 30 million AstraZeneca doses by September 2020 and 10 million of Pfizer doses by the end of 2020.

“So, I think people just want to understand the figures and want clarity. Can ministers tell us how many of the ordered doses have been manufactured?”

Mr Ashworth added: “Two million a week would be fantastic but it should be the limit of our ambitions, we should be aiming to scale up to three, then five, then six million jabs a week over the coming months.”

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How South African police are tackling pangolin smugglers

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Quiet, solitary and nocturnal, the pangolin has few natural enemies, but researchers believe it is the most trafficked mammal in the world. The tough scales covering its body are sought after for use in Chinese medicine, in the erroneous belief that they have healing properties.

The animal has also been of interest to researchers during the coronavirus pandemic. Related viruses have been found in trafficked pangolins, though there is continued uncertainty around early theories that pangolins were involved in the transmission of the virus from animals to humans.

After South African police seized a pangolin from suspected smugglers, BBC Africa correspondent Andrew Harding witnessed how vets tried to save the animal’s life.

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