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Iran’s persistent rhythm of half-measures, a drum beat of self-assertion, rarely lets up, leaving its adversaries — from hawk to moderate — able to choose from either of those options. Monday’s admission that it is now enriching uranium to the 20% purity level — a further breach of the collapsed nuclear deal (the JCPOA) and perhaps the singular most open step they’ve taken towards an alleged nuclear weapon — rings some of the loudest non-proliferation alarms in the region so far.

But it is not a complete surprise: Iran’s Majlis, or parliament, outlined such a move in December as part of a timetable of steps it wanted President Hassan Rouhani to take in a bid to escalate pressure on US President-elect Joe Biden’s administration for sanctions relief.

While uranium enriched at 20% is immediately useless if you want to make a weapon, it is a lot closer to the desired threshold of 90% — months away, at a push. It is a sign of potential potency that Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately seized upon to suggest that Iran seeks the Bomb. The timing of the move — in the face of Rouhani’s general rejection of the aggressive Majlis proposals — was quicker than many expected, but you would have to feign shock that it happened.

Inspectors from the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency will now assess how significant the enrichment at the Fordow facility has been.

The move was also not isolated. Moments earlier, Iran’s naval forces stopped a South Korean tanker for alleged pollution and arrested the crew. Any emissions aside, the move acted as a relatively low-risk reminder of Iran’s potential influence on shipping in the Gulf.

South Korea is a relatively neutral victim — with some Iranian assets held still in their accounts, allies enough to be noticed, but none who would act over this event alone.

The night of January 3 also passed without incident. Last year, a US drone killed Iran’s most prominent military commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, plunging the region into paroxysms of panic over wider conflict. Tehran’s pledged retaliation came as a limited missile strike against a US base in Iraq, that seems to have been adequately telegraphed so that nobody was killed.
Since then, Iran has been pummeled by the US campaign of “maximum pressure” of further sanctions during the pandemic, and has lost its most prominent nuclear scientist, Dr Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, killed by gunfire outside Tehran. For that, again, it has pledged to strike back, but has not done so.

The anniversary of Soleimani’s death was heralded with impressive CGI videos on Twitter, suggesting the revenge Iran’s allies could take, if they were indeed animated eagles, swooping down on video-game US soldiers. Yet nothing happened here either, with Iran’s allied militia in Iraq very clearly choosing not to repeat their earlier attacks on the US Embassy in Baghdad.

The US has also continued its dance of deterrence in the region, almost literally. Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller took the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier out of the region — so as to not provoke any escalation, ahead of the Soleimani anniversary — and then sent it back in again, at the apparent request of President Donald Trump. A little like their adversary, even the current bumbling US administration seems to want to play tough, yet not actually so tough that they get mud on their knees.

The mutual posturing — if hopefully that is all it remains — is almost transparently geared towards re-igniting negotiations with the incoming Biden administration.

Jake Sullivan, President-elect Biden’s national security advisor designate, told CNN the US would re-enter the JCPOA if Iran also did — if Iran dismantled centrifuges, and stopped enrichment. (It is unclear who would do what first, or whether the vast number of ancillary sanctions put on Iran by the Trump administration would still cause so much damage to the Iranian economy that the JCPOA alleviation of sanctions would become less beneficial).

Sullivan said once both sides were back in the JCPOA — which would be a huge feat of synchronicity and speed, given the Iranian presidential elections later this year in which hardliners are well-placed — then a “follow-on” deal was possible over Iran’s ballistic missile technology. Iran has flatly rejected any such deal, and said there’s nothing to renegotiate over the JCPOA: it is those original terms or nothing.

The churn and swill left behind by Trump’s maximum pressure policy has muddied waters enough that Sullivan and Biden will face an uphill challenge. But Tehran’s mostly rhetorical response to intense sanctions, repeated assassinations and a fair deal of US inflammatory rhetoric, does suggest it is keen for diplomacy and, with it, sanctions relief. Foreign minister Javid Zarif tweeted that while 20% enrichment had begun, it was in line with the JCPOA and “fully reversible upon FULL compliance by ALL.”

And the Trump experience — chaotic and counter-productive as it has been — afforded perhaps one lesson: that Iran, faced with a high-profile killing that many thought would spark a conflagration, knew it would lose any wider conflict with the US, and opted to not respond by publicly racing for a nuclear weapon. They’ve shown a pretty clear grasp of where Trump’s red lines are.

The lesson is two-fold. Iran is weaker than its angry, vengeful rhetoric suggests. But it follows that it is also not the rampaging, imminent threat its most hawkish adversaries would contend.

The challenge of the next 16 days of bloated tensions is to be sure that neither side reassesses the long-term intentions of the other, as they both talk loudly and carry big sticks, while hoping diplomacy picks up again.

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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


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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