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Iran makes nuclear advance at Fordow despite talks to save deal

Iran has started producing enriched uranium with more efficient advanced centrifuges at its Fordow plant dug into a mountain, the UN atomic watchdog said on Wednesday, further eroding the 2015 Iran nuclear deal during talks with the West on saving it.

The announcement appeared to undercut indirect talks between Iran and the US on bringing both fully back into the battered deal that resumed this week after a five-month break prompted by the election of hardline President Ebrahim Raisi.

Western negotiators fear Iran is creating facts on the ground to gain leverage in the talks.

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On the third day of this round of talks, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said Iran had started the process of enriching uranium to up to 20 percent purity with one cascade, or cluster, of 166 advanced IR-6 machines at Fordow. Those machines are far more efficient than the first-generation IR-1.

Underlining how badly eroded the deal is, that pact does not allow Iran to enrich uranium at Fordow at all. Until now it had been producing enriched uranium there with IR-1 machines and had enriched with some IR-6s without keeping the product.

It has 94 IR-6 machines installed in a cascade at Fordow that is not yet operating, the IAEA said in a statement.

A more comprehensive IAEA report circulated to member states and seen by Reuters said that as a result of Iran's move the nuclear watchdog planned to step up inspections at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP) that houses the centrifuges, but the details still need to be ironed out.

Iran and major powers are trying to revive the 2015 deal under which Tehran limited its nuclear program in exchange for relief from US, EU and UN economic sanctions.

Then-US President Donald Trump abandoned the deal in 2018 and reimposed harsh US sanctions, angering Iran and dismaying the other parties: Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia.

This week's indirect talks between Tehran and Washington – with others shuttling between them because Iran refuses to meet US officials – have made no visible progress.

Iran's foreign ministry spokesperson on Wednesday accused Israel of “trumpeting lies to poison” the talks.

While it was unclear what the spokesperson was referring to, a Tel Aviv-based reporter for US news organization Axios on Monday reported Israel had shared intelligence over the past two weeks with the United States and European allies suggesting Iran was taking technical steps to prepare to enrich uranium to 90 percent purity, the level needed for a nuclear weapon.

Iran says its nuclear program is for purely peaceful purposes.

On Tuesday, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said Iran was trying to buy time to advance its nuclear program and major powers needed to come up with a different approach.

“Sanctions must be reinforced and there needs to be a credible military threat because that it is the only thing that will prevent Iran from carrying out its race for a nuclear weapon,” Lapid said.

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Explainer: What remains of the Iran nuclear deal as talks resume?

Iran nuclear deal talks resume in Vienna amid muted hopes

US to exert pressure on Iran if it uses Vienna talks to boost nuclear program: Envoy

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Saudi Arabia on track to achieve UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030: Minister


Saudi Arabia is on track to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, the country’s Deputy Minister for Water told the UN this week.

Dr Abdulaziz al-Shaibani – who headed the Kingdom’s delegation participating in the UN 2023 Water Conference in New York between March 22-24 – said the Kingdom will achieve its goals thanks to the restructuring of the water sector and the development of the National Water Strategy, state news agency SPA reported Friday.

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Saudi Arabia has allocated $80 billion for water projects within the coming years as part of Saudi efforts to achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all.

Dr. Al-Shaibani added that the Kingdom launched Vision 2030 and adopted the National Water Strategy in line with the goals of sustainable development.

The National Water Strategy aims to preserve water resources, protect the environment, and provide high-quality and efficient services.

The objectives of the National Water Strategy are in line with SDG6 in enabling access to clean and safe water globally.

“The Kingdom aspires to provide sanitation services to all by increasing the percentage of the population covered by sanitation services to be more than 95 percent by 2030. Also, KSA established the National Water Efficiency and Conservation Center,” Dr. Al-Shaibani added.

He noted that sustainable and resilient water management was on the G20 agenda during Saudi Arabia’s presidency and stressed that the Kingdom is on the right track to improving water demand management in agriculture to achieve SDG6.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015, saw all 193 member countries of the UN unanimously adopt a landmark set of development goals intended to accelerate the world’s efforts to eradicate poverty, end hunger, protect the oceans and address climate change by 2030.

The 17 sustainable development goals are broken down into 169 specific targets that each country has committed to try to achieve voluntarily over the next 15 years.

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South Korea’s Yoon vows to make North pay price for its provocations


South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said on Friday he will make sure North Korea pays a price for its “reckless provocations”, hours after the North said it has tested a new nuclear-capable underwater attack drone.

North Korean state news agency KCNA said on Friday it tested a new nuclear underwater attack drone under leader Kim Jong Un's guidance this week, as a US amphibious assault ship arrived in South Korea for joint drills.

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The North's state news agency also confirmed it fired cruise missiles during the weapon test and firing drill that took place from Tuesday to Thursday.

During the drill, the North Korean drone cruised underwater for over 59 hours and detonated in waters off its east coast on Thursday, the KCNA said. It did not elaborate on the drone's nuclear capabilities.

The drone system is intended to make sneak attacks in enemy waters and destroy naval striker groups and major operational ports, the KCNA said.

“This nuclear underwater attack drone can be deployed at any coast and port or towed by a surface ship for operation,” the news agency said.

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North Korea says it tested new nuclear underwater attack drone

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Ukraine prepares counteroffensive as Russia’s assault on Bakhmut flags


Ukrainian troops, on the defensive for months, will soon counterattack as Russia’s offensive looks to be faltering, a commander said, but President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned that without a faster supply of arms the war could last years.

Zelenskyy said Europe must increase and speed up its supply of weapons, again calling for long-range missiles, ammunition and modern aircraft, and impose additional sanctions on Russia.

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“If Europe waits, the evil may have time to regroup and prepare for years of war,” a clearly frustrated Zelenskyy said on Thursday in a video address to European Union leaders, delivered from a train.

At the EU summit, leaders approved a plan agreed by foreign ministers on Monday to send 1 million artillery shells to Ukraine over the next year. They also discussed global food security and sanctions on Russia.

Britain has pledged to supply armor piercing munitions containing depleted uranium to help destroy Russian tanks, a step President Vladimir Putin said would force a response from Russia as the weapons had “a nuclear component”.

Slovakia said on Thursday it had handed over the first four MiG-29 jets it has pledged to Ukraine, with the rest to be delivered in weeks.

Ukraine’s top ground forces commander Oleksandr Syrskyi said his forces would soon begin a counter offensive after withstanding Russia’s brutal winter campaign.

He said Russia’s Wagner mercenaries, who have been at the front line of Moscow’s assault on eastern and southern Ukraine, “are losing considerable strength and are running out of steam”.

“Very soon, we will take advantage of this opportunity, as we did in the past near Kyiv, Kharkiv, Balakliya and Kupiansk,” he said, listing Ukrainian counteroffensives last year that recaptured swathes of land.

There was no immediate response from Moscow to suggestions its forces in Bakhmut were losing momentum, but Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin issued statements in recent days, warning of a Ukrainian counterassault.

On Monday, Prigozhin published a letter to Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, saying Ukraine aimed to cut off Wagner’s forces from Russia’s regular troops.

Reuters journalists near the front line north of Bakhmut saw signs consistent with the suggestion that the Russian offensive in the area could be waning. At a Ukrainian-held village west of Soledar, on Bakhmut’s northern outskirts, the intensity of the Russian bombardment noticeably lessened from two days earlier.

“It was really hot here a week ago, but in the last three days it has been more quiet,” said a Ukrainian soldier who used the call sign “Kamin”, or “Stone”.

“We can see this in the enemy’s air strikes. If before there were five-six air raids in a day, today we had only one helicopter attack,” said the soldier.

A slowdown by Russia in Bakhmut could mean it is diverting its troops and resources to other areas.

Britain said on Thursday that Russian troops had made gains further north this month, partially regaining control over the approaches to the town of Kreminna. Intense battles were also under way further south.

Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov agreed with that assessment. He said on YouTube that Russia’s attacks on Bakhmut were decreasing, and it was shifting its efforts south to the town of Avdiivka.

Russia’s forces have become more active in areas to the north in the Kharkiv and Luhansk regions as well as central Zaporizhzhia and southern Kherson regions, he said.

Any shift in momentum in Bakhmut, if confirmed, would be remarkable given the city’s symbolic importance as the focus of Russia’s offensive, and the scale of the losses on both sides there in Europe’s bloodiest infantry battle since World War Two.

On the ground in Ukraine, front lines have largely been frozen since November. Ukraine had looked likely to pull out of Bakhmut weeks ago but decided to fight on.

Zelenskyy had earlier on Thursday continued a tour of front-line provinces, visiting the Kherson region in the south a day after meeting troops near Bakhmut.

A video showed him meeting residents in Posad Pokrovske, a bombed-out village on the former Kherson front line recaptured in Ukraine’s last big advance last year.

Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022 in what it calls a “special military operation”, saying Ukraine’s ties to the West were a security threat. Since then, tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians and soldiers on both sides have been killed.

Russia has destroyed Ukrainian cities and set millions of people to flight. It says it has annexed nearly a fifth of Ukraine. Kyiv and the West call the war an unprovoked assault to subdue an independent country.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, said the EU would work to find Ukrainian children deported to Russia and press for their return. She said 16,200 children had been deported and only 300 returned to Ukraine.

The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Putin a week ago for the forcible removal of Ukrainian children.

“It is a horrible reminder of the darkest times of our history … to deport children. This is a war crime,” von der Leyen said.

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Ukraine’s Zelenskyy exhorts EU to send jets, missiles

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