IRAN: PRESSURE RISING
-OIL BAN…A significant move against Iran today – and one that is likely to hurt: European Union nations have adopted an oil embargo against Iran as part of sanctions over its nuclear program. British Foreign Secretary William Hague called the measure part of “an unprecedented set of sanctions…I think this shows the resolve of the European Union on this issue.” The oil sanctions call for an immediate ban on all new oil contracts with Iran, while existing contracts will be honoured until July 1. The EU currently buys about 20 percent of Iran’s oil exports. A senior Iranian lawmaker says his country has the right to shutter the strategic Strait of Hormuz in retaliation for oil sanctions on Tehran. Heshmatollah Falahapisheh was quoted by the semiofficial Mehr news agency as saying that a closure of the strait — the passageway for one fifth of the world’s oil supply — is an increasing possibility.
-U.S. SHOW OF FORCE…Per Luis MARTINEZ: The U.S. Fifth Fleet has put out the word that a US aircraft carrier has entered the Persian Gulf – it’ll be interesting to see what Iran’s reaction will be given previous comments about a carrier re-entering the Gulf. The USS Abraham Lincoln went through the Strait of Hormuz Sunday without incident. The carrier had just arrived in the Centcom area Thursday replacing the USS Stennis which is now headed home. The other US carrier in the region is the USS Carl Vinson which is in the Arabian Sea providing air cover for troops in Afghanistan.
EGYPT: HISTORIC DAY
Alex MARQUARDT reports: A remarkable scene…as newly-elected legislators took their seats in a packed lower house of parliament. Today is the first session following three months of rather complicated but by all accounts free and fair elections – Egypt’s first in decades. Seventy percent of the seats are held by Islamists, the speaker is from the Muslim Brotherhood. But it remains very much to be seen how much power the legislators will wield as the military council still has executive powers. One of the first tests will be the makeup of the 100-member body tasked with writing the new constitution. Meanwhile, groups from across the political spectrum are gearing up for huge protests on Wednesday, the first anniversary of the uprising.
-NO DEAL…That didn’t take long. The Arab League’s plan for Assad to step down – put forth just yesterday – was loudly rejected by Syria, whose state news agency SANA called it “a violation of its national sovereignty, a blatant interference in its internal affairs and a flagrant violation of the objectives for which the Arab League was established…” The League said it was not in favor of military intervention and decided over the weekend to extend its observer mission by a month and bring the total number of observers to 300. Meanwhile, Alex MARQUARDT notes one opposition group says the extension is “another deadline for the regime’s killing machine and a form of support in suppressing the Revolution while Syrian society is being obliterated.”
-RUSSIA SELLS JETS TO SYRIA…Alexandra NADEZHDINA writes from Moscow: Russia and Syria have signed a $550-million contract on the delivery of 36 Yakovlev Yak-130 Mitten combat trainers, the Kommersant daily reports. Under the deal struck in late December, the jets are to be supplied to Syria once Damascus makes a prepayment, a source said. Ruslan Pukhov, who heads the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Stategies and Technologies, said the contract was “certainly a big success for Russia’s leaders and arms traders.”
-ONE TOWN STANDS UP TO ASSAD…Great piece from our colleagues at the BBC — this done by Jeremy Bowen.
-FUEL-PUMPING TO BEGIN?…Rescue officials are meeting with salvage experts at this hour to determine if they can begin pumping fuel from the Costa Concordia as search efforts continue. A decision is expected to be announced today.
-BLASTING THE VESSEL…This comes as rescuers are set to carry out a series of explosions to open a large hole between deck 4 and 5 to allow for better access to the restaurant area and to get to the life boat deck where the missing could be.
-SCHETTINO’S DRUG TEST: NEGATIVE…RAI TV news is reporting Captain Schettino’s drug tests have come back negative.
-UNREGISTERED PASSENGERS…Reports of unregistered passengers have now been confirmed by the head of rescue operations after a woman’s body was found on the ship Saturday – and the woman herself was not on the list of missing passengers.
-THE ON-SHORE CAPTAIN…ANSA reports Captain De Falco, the Livorno port authority captain who ordered Captain back on board that night (“Vadda a bordo!” – that guy) arrived at the Grosseto court house this morning to meet with magistrates and investigators. Clearly he’ll be asked about that heated conversation he had with Captain Schettino.
-WHERE’S THE CARNIVAL CEO?…The Journal asks the question we’ve all been asking for a week – where is Carnival’s leadership in the midst of this crisis? The company says Carnival CEO Micky Arison is managing the crisis from Carnival’s office near Miami’s port. Carnival says Arison has been in continuous contact with the CEO of Carnival’s Italian unit Pier Luigi Foschi, but that he decided the Italian group is best suited to handle the on-the-ground response. The strategy of keeping a low profile may allow Arison and Carnival to limit the focus on the parent company and its other cruise lines.
Habibullah KHAN and the AP report from Islamabad: A suspected U.S. drone fired missiles at a house and a vehicle in northwestern Pakistan on Monday, killing four alleged militants in an attack that could signal the program is picking up steam after strained relations halted strikes late last year. The U.S. held off on carrying out drone attacks in Pakistan for nearly two months after American airstrikes accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at two posts along the Afghan border on Nov. 26. Although Pakistan is widely believed to have supported the strikes in the past, that cooperation has become strained as the relationship between the two countries has deteriorated.
ALL-FEMALE SEABEES TEAM MAKES HISTORY
The Los Angeles Times reports an all-female construction team has completed a construction job, start to finish, in the Seabees, the U.S. Navy’s construction forces – and they did it in record time in the barren rocky mountains of Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold and the focus of recent combat efforts.
WATCH OUT, TOKYO: 70% CHANCE OF MAJOR QUAKE
Akiko FUJITA reports from the fault lines: A new study by researchers at the University of Tokyo says there is a 70% chance of a large quake hitting the Tokyo area in the next 4 years. A professor with the Earthquake Research Institute says the risk may have risen as a result of the massive earthquake last March. Since the disaster, seismic activity has been intensifying in the southern Kanto region (where Tokyo is), and quakes larger than magnitude 3.0 have been occurring five times more frequently than previous years. The study is a stark contrast to government estimates, which say there’s a 70% chance of a M7.0 quake hitting the region in the next 30 years, not 4.
JAPANESE GOVERNMENT COVERED UP THE WORST
Kyodo news reports Japanese officials kept secret documents that laid out a worst-case scenario for Fukushima – fearful the details would scare the public. The documents drawn up in the aftermath of the triple disasters in March, spelled out a worst-case scenario, where “the plant’s crippled reactors would intermittently release massive quantities of radioactive materials for about a year.” Residents within 105 miles of the plant would be forced to evacuate, and voluntary evacuations could be ordered in Tokyo. Officials received the documents on March 25th, but found “the content so shocking, we decided to treat it as if it didn’t exist,” according to a senior official interviewed by Kyodo. As if revelations of secret documents weren’t bad enough, the health ministry has now admitted, it doesn’t keep track of radiation exposure for Fukushima workers, when off-site. The ministry also doesn’t check for radiation exposure for workers involved with decontamination efforts.
Gulf News reports an Indian minister has vowed to wear only lace-less footwear after he was caught by television cameras using a young man to tie up his shoes at a public function. Gauri Shankar Bisen, a minister in the state government of Madhya Pradesh, has apologized and admitted that it was a “mistake” to have the young student work on his shoes as he awaited the start of an event in the state.
BUFFET SINGS IN THE CHINESE NEW YEAR
Must-see TV: Warren Buffet rings in the Chinese New Year…with his rendition of “I’ve been working on the railroad”.
The AP reports adventurer Felicity Aston has crossed Antarctica, becoming the first woman to cross the icy continent alone. Aston also set another record: the first human to ski across Antarctica using only her own muscle power. She did it in 59 days, pulling two sleds for more than 1,084 miles (1,744 kilometers) from her starting point on the Leverett Glacier. Now she’s tweeting that she has made it to Hercules Inlet on the Ronne Ice Shelf, completing her journey. She’s still alone in a tent, waiting in bad weather for a small plane to pick her up and take her to a base camp. Aston’s expedition site here.