The Guardian 2024-07-06 20:13:06


Reformist Masoud Pezeshkian wins Iran presidential election

Victory reflects deep dissatisfaction with direction of country and could bring greater cooperation with west

The reformist Masoud Pezeshkian has pulled off a stunning victory in the Iranian presidential runoff, reflecting deep dissatisfaction with the direction of the country in recent years and opening potential new avenues of cooperation with the west.

Pezeshkian won 16,384,403 votes to defeat the ultra-conservative Saeed Jalili, who received 13,538,179 votes, on a final turnout of 49.8% – a big increase on the record low turnout of 39% recorded in the first round. In the first round, Pezeshkian came top, defeating three Conservative rivals. The turnout included more than 1m invalid votes.

Pezeshkian has been an advocate of letting women choose whether to wear the hijab and ending internet restrictions that require the population to use VPN connections to avoid government censorship. He said after his victory: “The difficult path ahead will not be smooth except with your companionship, empathy and trust.”

Under the slogan “For Iran”, Pezeshkian had promised to be a voice of the voiceless, saying protests must not be met with the police baton. Although some regard him as naive in high politics, a large part of his campaign was deliberately framed around his personal integrity, as well as his absence from ministerial office for the past decade. There were immediate calls from his backers to release political prisoners from jails, a symbol of the pent-up demands he may struggle to satisfy.

Pezeshkian faces a minefield in trying to bring about change, and although he has said he is loyal to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, he has also said he will resign if he feels he is being thwarted, and will then call on the population to withdraw from the political process.

The precise powers of the president in the field of foreign policy are disputed, but Pezeshkian argued in successive, often acrimonious TV debates that he could not bring about change, including the lowering of 40% inflation, unless he could secure the lifting of some sanctions, which would require a less confrontational approach to international relations.

During the campaign, he said Iran had found itself inside an economic cage as a result of its foreign policy, and needed to be more cooperative to see if sanctions could be lifted.

His in effect running mate in the campaign had been the former foreign minister Javad Zarif, who negotiated the nuclear deal in 2015 that led to a lifting of sanctions before Donald Trump pulled the US out of the plan in 2018.

Zarif said sanctions meant Iran had been bypassed. The stock market rose on the news of the reformist victory.

Jalili, a former nuclear negotiator close to the supreme leader, had claimed Iran could thrive by building stronger economic ties away from the west. Far from Iran being a cage, he said, Iran was a sanctuary.

Pezeshkian’s victory is all the more remarkable since no reformist was allowed to stand in the last presidential election in 2021, and it was thought the high tide of Iranian reformism had long passed, with many voters convinced there was no point going to the polls since a “shadow government” took all the decisions.

The repression of the “women, life, freedom” protests in 2022 only added to a sense that the path to change through the ballot box was closed. Many senior reformists from the green movement as well as political prisoners inside Evin jail had called for a boycott.

But after Pezeshkian topped the first round – defying the rule of Iranian politics that reformists lose if turnout is low – his campaign team grew in confidence that he could win if more voters took part in the runoff.

It also became clear that supporters of the more centrist conservative Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf were not going to transfer their votes to Jalili, with whom they had sharp ideological differences. Zarif urged the abstentionists to vote, saying: “Those who did not participate in the first round, you sent your message in the first period, now you must complete your message with your presence.”

Another leading Pezeshkian backer, the former communications minister Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi, said: “We must prove the people are the people, not those who consider themselves guardians of the people.”

On Saturday evening, reformists became nervous that a sudden surge in late votes was a sign of the regime seeking to rig the result, something it has been accused of doing before. There were reports that government funds were being used to send clerics into rural villages to solidify support in Jalili heartlands.

But then late on Saturday, government news channels leaked that Pezeshkian had won before the Iranian election headquarters declared him the official victor, sending his supporters into the streets of Tehran.

About 5,000 had attended his final election rally in a football stadium in Tehran, suggesting his campaign might not have sparked the support he needed among abstentionists. After a quiet campaign in the capital, his jubilant supporters poured on to the streets of Tehran to celebrate a victory that few saw coming.

In parliamentary elections earlier this year marked by low turnout, the conservatives trounced reformists. Ghalibaf’s authority as speaker of the parliament has, meanwhile, been weakened by his defeat in the presidential elections. The political complexion of the parliament will be one of the many obstacles facing the new president since it has the power to impeach ministers.

The first round of voting on 28 June had the lowest turnout in the history of the Islamic Republic since the 1979 revolution. Iranian officials have long pointed to turnout as a symbol of the legitimacy for the country’s Shia theocracy, but Khamenei said those who stayed away from the polls had not done so due to opposition to the regime.

The snap presidential election was caused by the death of Ebrahim Raisi, the incumbent, in a helicopter crash in May. Raisi had been seen as a potential successor to the 85-year-old supreme leader, and his death has thrown that succession into disarray. The decision is taken by an 88-strong body, the assembly of experts.

The west will now have to make a judgment on whether to help Pezeshkian or maintain the blanket of sanctions due to the continued escalation of Iran’s nuclear programme, and its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

Iran is enriching uranium at near weapons-grade levels and maintains a stockpile large enough to build several nuclear weapons, but does not yet have the warheads or missile technology.

It is also providing Russia with drones for use in Ukraine. Pezeshkian’s second foreign policy adviser alongside Zarif was a former ambassador to Moscow, Mehdi Sanei.

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Profile

Masoud Pezeshkian: the former heart surgeon who became president of Iran

The reformist’s life has been shaped by conscription duty in a deprived city and great personal tragedy

The shock election of Masoud Pezeshkian as Iran’s new president is as much a testimony to his personality as to his politics.

A former heart surgeon and health minister, he came across in the many presidential TV debates as a man of great personal integrity and humility, desperate to bring the country together after it had been divided domestically and abroad.

In the end, it will only be his opponent’s fear of his continued popularity that will help Pezeshkian wield influence in the warren that is Iran’s notoriously multi-level and factional politics.

It is an uphill task since, although the turnout in the run-off was higher than in the first round, it is the second lowest in Iranian presidential campaigns, showing many Iranians remain sceptical about politicians.

Pezeshkian’s life has been marked by personal tragedy, which has shaped him.

His wife – who he met as a fellow medical student – and youngest son died in a car crash 30 years ago after his car hit a rock returning from a family trip to Tabriz. She was a trained gynaecologist and her loss affected him deeply, bringing him to tears even now.

He never married again, bringing up his remaining three children largely alone, learning to cook and teach them. His daughter, Zahra, accompanied him, wearing the hijab and holding his hand, when he registered to stand for the presidency this time. She has a master’s degree in chemistry and is regarded as a political adviser.

He reportedly speaks many languages including, apart from Farsi, Azeri, as well as some Kurdish and Arabic. His father was Azeri and his mother Kurdish. During one TV discussion he broke into good English to quote Einstein’s famous saying: “The definition of ‘insanity’ is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Pezeshkian’s 2024 campaign was his second full attempt to run for the presidency.

He first entered politics in 2006 as MP for Tabriz, building his popular base over successive elections.

Although he has a sharp tongue when he lashes out against corruption and the merchants of sanctions, his overall demeanour is suited to the role of a co-operator, often saying he will defer to experts on how to solve the country’s economic problems. He often left some of the sharpest attacks on his “Taliban opponents” to be made by his supporters.

But he faces an uphill task uniting the country, since his conservative opponents deeply resented being described as the Taliban by the reformists and viewed him as an agent of the west and his supporters, people that had succumbed to the western internet filter breakers.

He will also have to decide whether or how to reconcile himself with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Pezeshkian was born in September 1954 in Mahabad, a city in West Azerbaijan province known for having a large population of Azeri and Kurdish ethnic minorities.

He repeatedly reflects on his Azeri heritage, even though Mahabad is a predominantly Kurdish city, although he stresses he sees Iran as a unitary state. He is an advocate of ethnic rights as way of keeping the country united.

At the age of 19, during the era of the Shah, he served his conscription duty in Zabul – one of the most deprived cities in Sistan and Balochistan province, an experience that was said to be his political awakening.

He returned to his home town to start his medical training and served as a doctor and fighter during the deadly Iran-Iraq war.

After the war, he specialised in cardiology and heart surgery at Tabriz University of Medical Sciences. In 1994, he rose to the level of the university’s chief administrator and then became an MP for Tabriz. It was there, he admits in a video circulated by his opponents, that he enforced the hijab, and threatened those who did not comply with being sent home.

He admits his views have developed since then and he is on record as opposing the suppression of the 2019 oil price protests and the 2021 protests sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody.

He has said: “Girls and women are our own and not foreigners. We have no right to force girls and women regarding citizenship rights. We will not be able to cover women’s heads through coercion.”

The “morality police” are once again seeking to enforce the hijab, with varying degrees of success judging by the streets of Tehran, and, once inaugurated, Pezeshkian will face an early test to see if he can change the enforcement climate.

Despite efforts by his opponents to portray him as a continuation of the unpopular government of President Hassan Rouhani, he never served in the eight years of his administration, instead only acting as health minister between 2001 and 2005 under the government of Mohammad Khatami.

He ran for the presidency in 2013 and 2021 but in his second attempt he was blocked by the 12-strong Guardian council that vets candidates, an exclusion for which he demanded an explanation.

The appointment of Javad Zarif as an adviser gave him an analytical framework in which to argue the link between the state of the economy and the need for better relations with the west, portraying his opponent Jalili as an advocate of a siege economy. To achieve the target 6% growth he said: “We would need £200bn annually in investment, which is impossible under current conditions, therefore solving our international issues is crucial.”

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Biden says only ‘the Lord almighty’ could make him drop out in pivotal TV interview

In appearance aimed at quelling nascent rebellion among Democrats, Biden made no big gaffes, but reviews are mixed

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Joe Biden has insisted that only “the Lord almighty” could persuade him to exit the US presidential race in a potential make-or-break TV interview aimed at quelling a burgeoning rebellion in the Democratic party.

In an exchange free from major gaffes but unlikely to appease his critics, Biden was asked by George Stephanopoulos of ABC News how he would feel if he were to remain the nominee and lose to Donald Trump. “I’ll feel as long as I gave it my all and I did the goodest job as I know I can do, that’s what this is about,” the president replied.

In other responses his opponents may see as arrogant or out of touch, the 81-year-old claimed that he is “running the world” and no one is “more qualified” to be president.

The interview on Friday came at a critical stretch as the 81-year-old strives to salvage his imperiled re-election campaign after last month’s disastrous debate performance. Four members of Congress have called on Biden to step aside, and it was reported that Mark Warner, who chairs the Senate intelligence committee, is looking to assemble a group of Democratic senators to ask the president to drop his re-election bid.

But on Friday, speaking to Stephanopoulos in Madison, Wisconsin, after a fiery campaign rally, the embattled president continued to strike a defiant tone. “Look. I mean, if the Lord Almighty came down and said, ‘Joe, get outta the race,’ I’d get outta the race,” he said, his voice sounding strained after the rally. “The Lord Almighty’s not comin’ down.”

Biden insisted that after meeting with Democratic leaders such as Chuck Schumer, Hakeem Jeffries, Nancy Pelosi and state governors, they continue to back him.

Stephanopoulos, a former senior adviser to President Bill Clinton, pressed Biden on what he would do if told that his friends and supporters were concerned that his candidacy would cost Democrats the House of Representatives and Senate.

The president replied: “I’m not going to answer that question. It’s not going to happen.

Stephanopoulos had begun the primetime interview by citing Pelosi, who this week questioned whether Biden’s feeble performance represented an episode or a condition.

“It was a bad episode,” Biden insisted. “No indication of any serious condition. I was exhausted. I didn’t listen to my instincts in terms of preparing and – I had a bad night.”

Stephanopoulos noted that Biden had returned from Europe 12 days before the debate and that he had spent six days at the presidential retreat Camp David. Why wasn’t that enough rest time, enough recovery time?” he asked.

The president replied: “Because I was sick. I was feeling terrible. Matter of fact, the doc’s with me. I asked if they did a Covid test because they’re trying to figure out what was wrong. They did a test to see whether or not I had some infection, you know, a virus. I didn’t. I just had a really bad cold.”

Stephanopoulos asked whether Biden had watched the debate afterwards. Instead of giving a firm yes or no, he hedged: “I don’t think I did, no.”

The interviewer went on to ask what Biden had been experiencing during the debate and whether he had known how badly it was going. Just as he did on that night, the president zigzagged in his answer from one point to another. He said: “Yeah, look. The whole way I prepared, nobody’s fault, mine. Nobody’s fault but mine.

“I – I prepared what I usually would do sittin’ down as I did come back with foreign leaders or National Security Council for explicit detail. And I realised – partway through that, you know, all – I get quoted the New York Times had me down, 10 points before the debate, nine now, or whatever the hell it is.

“The fact of the matter is, what I looked at is that he also lied 28 times. I couldn’t – I mean, the way the debate ran, not – my fault, nobody else’s fault, no one else’s fault.”

Stephanopoulos challenged Biden that concerns about his fitness for office followed a pattern, citing a recent New York Times article that reported his lapses were becoming more frequent, pronounced and worrisome.

Biden said: “Can I run a 110 flat? No. But I’m still in good shape.”

Asked whether he would be willing to have an independent cognitive evaluation and release the results to the American people, Biden said: “Look, I have a cognitive test every single day. Every day I’ve had tests. Everything I do. You know, not only am I campaigning, I’m running the world. And that sounds like hyperbole but we are the essential nation in the world.”

The interviewer asked: “Are you sure you’re being honest with yourself when you’re saying you have the mental and physical capacity to serve another four years?”

Biden shot back: “Yes, I am because, George, the last thing I want to do is not be able to meet that. I think as some of the senior economist and senior foreign policy specialists say, if I stopped now I’d go down in history as a pretty successful president. No one thought I could get done what we got done.

The 22-minute interview was shown to a national audience on ABC. It was part of a major campaign offensive over the weekend to assuage doubts over Biden’s fitness for office and ability to beat Trump.

The Biden campaign’s response to the crisis over the past few days has frustrated many Democrats. Some financial backers are holding off or canceling upcoming fundraisers.

And at least four House Democrats have called for him to step down as the nominee: Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, Lloyd Doggett of Texas and Raúl Grijalva of Arizona and Mike Quigley of Illinois are pushing for an alternative. Massachusetts governor Maura Healey said in a carefully worded statement on Friday that Biden now has a decision to make on “the best way forward”.

In the interview, Biden dismissed those calls, as well as opinion polls that show he has a low approval rating and claimed that he remains better placed than other candidates to beat Trump. “I don’t think anybody is more qualified to be president or win this race than me,” he said, bristling.

Stephanopoulos followed up: “The heart of your case against Donald Trump is that he’s only out for himself, putting his personal interests ahead of the national interest. How do you respond to critics who say that by staying in the race you’re doing the same thing?”

Biden responded impatiently: “Oh, come on. I don’t think those critics know what you’re talking about. It’s wrong. Look, Trump is a pathological liar. You ever seen anything Trump did that benefited somebody else and not him?”

The president may have just days to make a persuasive case that he is capable of beating Trump. Early reactions to his rallies and interviews have been mixed.

John Fetterman, the Democratic senator for Pennsylvania, wrote on the social media platform X: “Democrats need to get a spine or grow a set — one or the other. Joe Biden is our guy.”

But David Axelrod, a former strategist for Barack Obama, posted: “The president is rightfully proud of his record. But he is dangerously out-of-touch with the concerns people have about his capacities moving forward and his standing in this race. Four years ago at this time, he was 10 points ahead of Trump. Today, he is six points behind.”

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Joe Biden accidentally said he is the ‘first Black woman’ to serve as vice-president ‘with a Black president’, during an interview with Philadelphia’s WURD radio station. The US president was referring to his vice-president, Kamala Harris, and former president Barack Obama when he made the comments. The slip-up came amid a political fallout following a disappointing debate performance last week that sent Democrats scrambling

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Hurricane Beryl: Britons join global aid effort amid Caribbean devastation

New UK foreign secretary, David Lammy, adds to support of individuals raising funds for disaster-hit islands

  • General election 2024 – live news

Britons have joined a growing global effort to help thousands of people in the Caribbean left homeless and destitute in the wake of Hurricane Beryl.

Since making landfall on Monday, the hurricane has killed at least 10 people.

It obliterated almost all of the buildings and vegetation in the Grenadian islands of Carriacou and Petite Martinique. It also caused widespread destruction on the island of St Vincent and demolished 95% of structures in the Grenadine islands of Union, Petit St Vincent, Palm Island and Mayreau.

Beryl then went on to ravage Jamaica and the Cayman Islands. In Jamaica, it caused two deaths after ripping off roofs and uprooting trees and electrical poles.

The hurricane also battered Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula and brought intense flooding to Venezuela, where three people died and four are missing.

A tearful resident of Union described the hurricane as “worse than the devil”, breaking into sobs as he said he had lost everything. Words, he added, are not enough to describe the terror of the storm.

The stories of those affected by Beryl have captured the attention of people, organisations and countries around the globe. The US joined governments in the Caribbean to pledge humanitarian and financial support.

In the UK, the newly installed foreign secretary, David Lammy, said he would increase support to Caribbean countries affected by Beryl to £500,000. This includes 800 emergency shelter kits, capable of supporting up to 4,000 people.

“Our thoughts remain with those who have lost loved ones, their homes or have been left without power,” he said. “This funding will help support disaster recovery efforts, as part of a swift and coordinated response in the region.

“That such a storm has developed so early in the season shows that we are facing a climate emergency and must act now.”

Individuals with connections to the islands have also started fundraisers and aid collection drives. The GoFundMe appeals in the UK have raised more than £200,000.

In London, Grenadians Saskia Moynihan De Silva and Esmond Joseph spoke to the BBC about their emergency appeals. They are collecting non-perishable food, toiletries and medical supplies to ship to Grenada.

In Union island, Kory Meidell from the Christian disaster response group Gideon Rescue Co arrived to set up satellite-based internet service, Starlink, after Beryl caused a communication blackout that has hindered rescue and relief efforts.

“They needed some help setting up their Starlink, and we are happy to do that to get their communications back up. We know that God cares much about this island, and that’s the thing we want to share, that God cares about the people here. He knows the hurt and heartache, and he is sending help,” Meidell said.

Help has also come from locals, who are themselves affected by the hurricane.

In Union, professional kitesurfer Jeremie Tronet and Abdon Whyte, a teacher at the Union Island secondary school, have been using their own resources, time and effort to bring relief to the island. Tronet’s GoFundMe page has already raised more than €200,000.

Whyte, who has been supporting cleanup efforts, said more hands were needed on the ground. “We need persons to assist with cleaning; we need more medical people because some of the nurses have been injured or lost everything. (We need) first aiders, first responders, and police because the island has nothing. I myself have lost everything,” he said.

Governments are also asking for donations to their own relief funds. St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) has set up a site with bank account details and a list of priority relief items. Grenada has posted similar appeals for volunteers and financial contributions on their National Disaster Management Agency Facebook page.

In SVG, the government has temporarily waived import taxes on relief items coming into the country.

Officials in the affected countries are also urging those wishing to make contributions to stick to the list of priority items and liaise with the national emergency offices to ensure aid distribution is coordinated and reaches the right people.

Dickon Mitchell, prime minister of Grenada, and his counterpart from Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Ralph Gonsalves, who face a dire humanitarian situation and the prospect of rebuilding islands from the ground up, have expressed grave concerns about the staggering costs associated with the “herculean” relief and recovery effort.

Officials have highlighted the urgency of restoring basic services such as medical care and security, with police concerned about a breakdown in law and order due to power outages and unsecured properties.

The SVG high commissioner in London has stressed the need for a “swift recovery”, adding that this is “an essential condition” for sustainable development to continue in the Caribbean nations.

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  • Hamas has accepted a US proposal to begin talks on releasing Israeli hostages, including soldiers and men, 16 days after the first phase of an agreement aimed at ending the Gaza war, a senior Hamas source has told Reuters. The militant Islamist group has dropped a demand that Israel first commit to a permanent ceasefire before signing the agreement, and would allow negotiations to achieve that throughout the six-week first phase, the source told Reuters on condition of anonymity because the talks are private.

  • Hopes for a ceasefire in Gaza and de-escalation on the boundary between Israel and Lebanon were raised on Friday, as Israel’s intelligence chief was dispatched by the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to Qatar to resume stalled negotiations as Hamas reportedly told its Lebanese ally Hezbollah it had accepted a ceasefire proposal. An official for the Lebanese group, which said on Thursday that it had fired 200 rockets into Israel in retaliation for a strike that killed one of its top commanders, also told Reuters that the group would cease fire as soon as any Gaza ceasefire agreement takes effect, echoing previous statements.

  • The head of the Mossad intelligence agency, David Barnea, travelled alone to Doha to meet Qatar’s prime minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, to study proposals from Hamas to pause the nearly nine-month war, the Kan public broadcaster reported, citing senior Israeli officials. He returned to Israel after an initial meeting, and negotiations will resume next week, Netanyahu’s office said late on Friday.

  • At least 38,098 Palestinians have been killed and 87,705 others injured in Israel’s military offensive on Gaza since 7 October, the health ministry in Gaza said on Saturday.

  • Reformist candidate Masoud Pezeshkian has won Iran’s runoff presidential election, beating hardliner Saeed Jalili by promising to reach out to the west and ease enforcement on the country’s mandatory headscarf law after years of sanctions and protests squeezing the Islamic Republic. A vote count offered by authorities on Saturday morning put Pezeshkian as the winner with 16.3 million votes to Jalili’s 13.5 million after Friday’s voting.

  • The British Royal Navy destroyer HMS Diamond is returning to Portsmouth on Saturday after six months in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden helping to protect shipping from attacks by Yemen’s Houthi rebels. The warship shot down nine drones and a Houthi missile, sailing nearly 44,000 miles and spending 151 days at sea, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) said.

  • Lebanon’s Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah and top Hamas official Khalil Al-Hayya discussed the latest developments in the Gaza Strip and negotiations aimed at reaching a ceasefire there during a meeting, Hezbollah said on Friday. Nasrallah received Hamas deputy chief Hayya for the meeting, which reviewed “the latest security and political developments” in the Gaza Strip.

  • Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was quoted by Turkish media as saying he hoped a “final ceasefire” could be secured “in a couple of days”, and urged western countries to put pressure on Israel to accept the terms on offer.

  • Seven Palestinians were killed in an Israeli military offensive on the West Bank city of Jenin on Friday, the Palestinian health ministry said. Israel’s military said in a statement its forces had encircled a building where militants had barricaded themselves in, and that an Israeli aircraft had struck targets in the area. The Palestinian news agency Wafa said military vehicles surrounded a house in a Jenin refugee camp and loudspeaker demands were made for an occupant to surrender. Shoulder-fired missiles were then used and a drone attacked the house, it added.

  • On 20 May, the same day international criminal court prosecutor Karim Khan made a surprise request for warrants to arrest the leaders of Israel and Hamas involved in the Gaza conflict, he suddenly cancelled a sensitive mission to collect evidence in the region, eight people with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters. Planning for the visit had been under way for months with US officials, four of the sources said. Khan’s move has harmed operational cooperation with the US and angered the UK a sources told Reuters.

  • Hamas said on Friday it rejected any statements and positions that support plans for foreign forces to enter the Gaza Strip under any name or justification. The group said the administration of the Gaza Strip is a purely Palestinian matter. “The Palestinian people … will not allow any guardianship or the imposition of any external solutions or equations,” it added.

  • Hezbollah said it had fired 200 rockets into Israel in one of its largest barrages yet. Israel confirmed the Iran-backed militant group had fired “numerous projectiles and suspicious aerial targets” from Lebanon on Thursday towards the occupied Syrian Golan Heights and more than 15 drones into Israeli territory, many of which it said were intercepted. An Israeli military spokesperson said there were no casualties reported.

Israel-Hamas talks to resume, raising hopes of a Gaza ceasefire

Netanyahu sends intelligence chief to Qatar to study Hamas proposal, while Hezbollah says it would also stop attacks if hostilities paused

Hopes for a ceasefire in Gaza and de-escalation on the boundary between Israel and Lebanon were raised on Friday, as Israel’s intelligence chief was dispatched by the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to Qatar to resume stalled negotiations as Hamas reportedly told its Lebanese ally Hezbollah it had accepted a ceasefire proposal.

An official for the Lebanese group, which said on Thursday that it had fired 200 rockets into Israel in retaliation for a strike that killed one of its top commanders, also told Reuters that the group would cease fire as soon as any Gaza ceasefire agreement takes effect, echoing previous statements.

“If there is a Gaza agreement, then from zero hour there will be a ceasefire in Lebanon,” the official said.

The efforts to negotiate a ceasefire in Gaza and the release of hostages held for nearly nine months gained momentum this week as Hamas put forward a revised proposal outlining the terms of an agreement, and Israel expressed readiness to resume discussions that had previously come to a standstill.

The head of the Mossad intelligence agency, David Barnea, travelled alone to Doha to meet Qatar’s prime minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, to study proposals from Hamas to pause the nearly nine-month war, the Kan public broadcaster reported, citing senior Israeli officials.

He returned to Israel after an initial meeting, and negotiations will resume next week, Netanyahu’s office said late on Friday.

The United States appears to hold high expectations regarding the recently resumed contact between Israel and Hamas, with the White House describing the latest Hamas ceasefire proposal as a “breakthrough” establishing a framework for a possible hostage deal.

‘‘I think the framework is now in place and we have to work out the implementation steps,” a senior US official said. “What we got back from Hamas was a pretty significant adjustment to what had been their position, and that is encouraging. We have heard the same from the Israelis.”

The main obstacle in negotiations until this week had been widely differing views on how the agreement would move from its first phase to its second.

The first phase involves the release by Hamas of elderly, sick and female hostages during a six-week truce, an Israeli withdrawal from cities in Gaza, and the release of Palestinian detainees held by Israel.

The second phase would involve the release of all remaining hostages as well as the bodies of those who have died, a permanent end to hostilities and a full Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Phase three would mark the start of Gaza’s reconstruction.

The transition from the first to the second phase was to be negotiated during the first six-week truce, and the ceasefire would continue as long as good-faith negotiations continued, but Hamas wanted stronger guarantees over the path to a permanent ceasefire.

Netanyahu had publicly cast doubt on whether that would happen, vowing to complete the destruction of the group, which had run Gaza for nearly two decades before it launched its surprise attack on southern Israel on 7 October.

A Palestinian official close to the internationally mediated peace efforts told Reuters the new Hamas proposal could lead to a framework agreement if it is embraced by Israel.

He said Hamas was no longer demanding as a pre-condition an Israeli commitment to a permanent ceasefire before the signing of an agreement, and would allow negotiations to achieve that throughout a first six-week phase.

The White House said Biden and Netanyahu had on Thursday discussed the response received from Hamas on the possible terms of a deal, and that Biden had welcomed Netanyahu’s decision on resuming the stalled talks “in an effort to close out the deal”.

A source in the Israeli negotiating team told Reuters: “There’s a deal with a real chance of implementation.”

A Gaza ceasefire could also allow for the de-escalation between Hezbollah and Israel on the Lebanese boundary. Hezbollah has declared its attacks on Israel to be in support of Hamas and indicated its willingness to halt its assaults if a ceasefire is reached in Gaza.

A Hamas delegation headed by the group’s deputy leader, Khalil al-Hayya, briefed Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah about the latest developments at a meeting in Beirut, the sources said.

Its deputy secretary general Naim Qassem on Friday publicly indicated that the group is not anticipating a full-scale war with Israel, but remains prepared for any extreme scenarios, in an interview with Russian outlet Sputnik.

“The possibility of expanding the war is not at hand at the moment but the organisation is prepared for the worst,” he said.

Mothers of Hamas-held hostages demonstrating in Tel Aviv’s Habima Square urged Israeli leaders to make an agreement. “There is right now a deal on the table,” said Shira Albag, the mother of 19-year-old Liri Albag, calling on the prime minister to “show leadership and courage and sign it off”.

One of the main obstacles to the negotiations within Israel is the far-right faction of the Netanyahu coalition government. The national security minister, Itamar Ben Gvir, issued a warning about potentially exiting the coalition during a highly charged security cabinet session on Thursday evening.

According to media reports in Israel, Ben Gvir criticised Netanyahu for engaging in private discussions with the defence minister, Yoav Gallant, and top security officials, painting the cabinet as merely a superficial facade.

“I want to make it abundantly clear, prime minister, that if you choose to act unilaterally, the consequences are solely your own to bear, and you will find yourself standing alone. I did not receive half a million votes to partake in a government where key security decisions are made outside the collective,” he was quoted as saying.

Reuters and Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Stormy Daniels gets more than $900K from GoFundMe after alleged threats

Daniels says Trump supporters have inundated her with threats to rape and murder her daughter and other family

Stormy Daniels’ supporters have raised more than $900,000 meant to help her move to a safe house and repay legal fees after testifying in the criminal trial that led to Donald Trump’s conviction on 34 felonies.

The money comes from an online GoFundMe campaign started by a friend and former manager of the adult film actor, who recently appeared on MSNBC and described how supporters of Trump have bombarded her with social media harassment as he seeks a second presidency, including threats to rape and murder her daughter and other family.

“It’s become unsafe for her family and her pets,” the fundraiser’s organizer, Dwayne Crawford, wrote on the page for the campaign, which set a goal of $1m. “Stormy needs help to relocate her family to somewhere they can feel safe and live on their terms.

“She needs assistance to be able to continue to pay the mounting fees so that Trump doesn’t just win because his pocketbook seems endless.”

The so-called I Stand with Stormy Daniels campaign – which had raised more than $940,000 from about 17,600 donors as of Friday – follows her key role in getting Trump convicted in late May on charges of falsifying business records.

Daniels, whose legal name is Stephanie Clifford, was paid $130,000 to keep quiet about an extramarital sexual encounter that she has alleged to have had with Trump a decade prior to his 2016 presidential election victory. The payment to Daniels was falsely recorded as legal expenses, according to prosecutors, who ultimately won a conviction against Trump in a New York state courthouse with the help of testimony from Daniels.

The US supreme court on Monday held that presidents enjoy broad immunity from prosecution in connection with their actions in office – which should aid Trump substantially as he tries to defeat criminal cases pending against him on charges of improperly retaining classified records and of trying to subvert the outcome of the 2020 election that he lost to Joe Biden.

One of the more immediate consequences of the supreme court’s ruling was for New York judge Juan Merchan to delay Trump’s sentencing in the case that ensnared Daniels. It had originally been scheduled for 11 July, but Merchan tentatively reset the proceeding for 18 September after the former president’s legal team asked him to delay it in light of the immunity decision.

Meanwhile, Daniels told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow on Tuesday that she had been inundated with Facebook messages threatening “to rape everybody in my family, including my young daughter, before they killed them”.

“I’ve lost … mostly my peace, mostly my daughter’s privacy, and time – time I’ll never get back with her,” Daniels said in reference to her participation in the prosecution against Trump.

She also detailed how she owed $500,000 in attorneys’ fees – which she could not afford to pay – over a civil defamation lawsuit that she filed against Trump in 2018.

Among those who expressed support for Daniels after her interview with Maddow was writer E Jean Carroll, who sued Trump over allegations of rape and defamation – and won nearly $90m in civil penalties from him. “I’d be happy to help!!” she wrote on X on Tuesday night.

But one of the voices to come out against Daniels was her former attorney Michael Avenatti, who remained imprisoned for defrauding her and other clients.

In a Wednesday post on X, he dismissed Daniels’ fundraising campaign as “GoFundMe grift” and “complete bullshit”, arguing that the alleged threats were not coming from Trump personally. Avenatti’s comments brought him his own detractors, with some X users accusing him of angling for a pardon from Trump in case he wins a return to the White House in November.

Crawford, the Daniels fundraiser organizer, wrote that he had been motivated to get involved after he and his friends were given “front-row seats to the parts of this story that don’t fit neatly into click-bait headlines”.

“If we allow Stormy, after choosing to stand up to the president of these United States, to lose her life, her liberty or her happiness, then we have failed at the very foundational core of what this nation was built upon,” Crawford added.

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Stormy Daniels gets more than $900K from GoFundMe after alleged threats

Daniels says Trump supporters have inundated her with threats to rape and murder her daughter and other family

Stormy Daniels’ supporters have raised more than $900,000 meant to help her move to a safe house and repay legal fees after testifying in the criminal trial that led to Donald Trump’s conviction on 34 felonies.

The money comes from an online GoFundMe campaign started by a friend and former manager of the adult film actor, who recently appeared on MSNBC and described how supporters of Trump have bombarded her with social media harassment as he seeks a second presidency, including threats to rape and murder her daughter and other family.

“It’s become unsafe for her family and her pets,” the fundraiser’s organizer, Dwayne Crawford, wrote on the page for the campaign, which set a goal of $1m. “Stormy needs help to relocate her family to somewhere they can feel safe and live on their terms.

“She needs assistance to be able to continue to pay the mounting fees so that Trump doesn’t just win because his pocketbook seems endless.”

The so-called I Stand with Stormy Daniels campaign – which had raised more than $940,000 from about 17,600 donors as of Friday – follows her key role in getting Trump convicted in late May on charges of falsifying business records.

Daniels, whose legal name is Stephanie Clifford, was paid $130,000 to keep quiet about an extramarital sexual encounter that she has alleged to have had with Trump a decade prior to his 2016 presidential election victory. The payment to Daniels was falsely recorded as legal expenses, according to prosecutors, who ultimately won a conviction against Trump in a New York state courthouse with the help of testimony from Daniels.

The US supreme court on Monday held that presidents enjoy broad immunity from prosecution in connection with their actions in office – which should aid Trump substantially as he tries to defeat criminal cases pending against him on charges of improperly retaining classified records and of trying to subvert the outcome of the 2020 election that he lost to Joe Biden.

One of the more immediate consequences of the supreme court’s ruling was for New York judge Juan Merchan to delay Trump’s sentencing in the case that ensnared Daniels. It had originally been scheduled for 11 July, but Merchan tentatively reset the proceeding for 18 September after the former president’s legal team asked him to delay it in light of the immunity decision.

Meanwhile, Daniels told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow on Tuesday that she had been inundated with Facebook messages threatening “to rape everybody in my family, including my young daughter, before they killed them”.

“I’ve lost … mostly my peace, mostly my daughter’s privacy, and time – time I’ll never get back with her,” Daniels said in reference to her participation in the prosecution against Trump.

She also detailed how she owed $500,000 in attorneys’ fees – which she could not afford to pay – over a civil defamation lawsuit that she filed against Trump in 2018.

Among those who expressed support for Daniels after her interview with Maddow was writer E Jean Carroll, who sued Trump over allegations of rape and defamation – and won nearly $90m in civil penalties from him. “I’d be happy to help!!” she wrote on X on Tuesday night.

But one of the voices to come out against Daniels was her former attorney Michael Avenatti, who remained imprisoned for defrauding her and other clients.

In a Wednesday post on X, he dismissed Daniels’ fundraising campaign as “GoFundMe grift” and “complete bullshit”, arguing that the alleged threats were not coming from Trump personally. Avenatti’s comments brought him his own detractors, with some X users accusing him of angling for a pardon from Trump in case he wins a return to the White House in November.

Crawford, the Daniels fundraiser organizer, wrote that he had been motivated to get involved after he and his friends were given “front-row seats to the parts of this story that don’t fit neatly into click-bait headlines”.

“If we allow Stormy, after choosing to stand up to the president of these United States, to lose her life, her liberty or her happiness, then we have failed at the very foundational core of what this nation was built upon,” Crawford added.

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‘Defending democracy is paramount’: Rula Jebreal warns against Meloni rule

The journalist, and critics, accuse the Italian PM of leading the country towards authoritarianism

The first time Rula Jebreal came face to face with Giorgia Meloni was for a TV debate in November 2016.

It was the day after the US presidential election, six years before Meloni became prime minister, and the pair were invited on to Piazzapulita, a talkshow broadcast on the privately owned television channel, La7, to discuss the victory of Donald Trump.

Meloni, whose Brothers of Italy, a party with neofascist roots, was at the time languishing on the political fringes, embraced Trump’s win. Jebreal, an Israeli-born Palestinian and the first black Muslim woman to present an Italian TV news show had moved to the country as a student, gained Italian citizenship alongside Israeli, and become known for calling out racism, misogyny and extremist groups.

The tension between the two was already palpable when the debate descended into a fiery clash of words: Jebreal challenged Meloni over Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and the rise in racism brought about by his campaign, as well as the violence unleashed at his rallies. Meloni rolled her eyes when reminded about Italy’s fascist past and the violence imposed by Benito Mussolini’s regime. She dismissed her opponent as “crazy” when Jebreal said: “I understand it must be difficult to talk to a black woman like me”.

The debate marked Jebreal out as a nemesis of Italy’s farright, while giving insight into the ruthless streak that the country’s future prime minister would increasingly come to wield against her opponents.

Jebreal claims their confrontation set the wheels in motion for a years-long campaign of online attacks and intimidation over her criticism of Meloni and the Brothers of Italy, including being landed with a defamation lawsuit from her soon after Meloni’s coalition triumphed in the September 2022 general election.

“She had clearly lost the debate,” Jebreal, who now lives in the US, said during a visit to Italy. “She was attempting to rehabilitate Italy’s fascist history – a bloody history she had never totally disavowed.” Meloni did not take this well, she said. “She just dashed out of the studio.”

Jebreal has not been the only target. Since coming to power, Meloni’s government has been accused of making strategic use of defamation suits to silence journalists and public intellectuals. Her government has also been accused of exerting its influence over the state broadcaster, Rai, and other Italian media. In April, Rai came under fire for alleged censorship after the abrupt cancellation of an anti-fascist monologue that was due to be read by author Antonio Scurati. Meloni attacked Scurati on social media while accusing the left of “crying at the regime”.

Meloni’s growing antipathy towards Jebreal was made clearer in 2020, when during a national TV talkshow she took issue over the journalist being invited to read her monologue against violence against women at that year’s Sanremo song festival “without cross-examination … at taxpayers’ expense”.

The defamation case was filed over a tweet by Jebreal alleging Meloni had said asylum seekers were criminals who wanted to “replace” white Christians. Meloni sued Jebreal for allegedly attributing “very serious statements and political positions” to her. Jebreal is under formal investigation for defamation, although judges have not yet ruled whether the case will go to court.

Fabio Rampelli, a Brothers of Italy politician and vice-president of the lower house of parliament, is also suing Jebreal for defamation over a tweet about a neofascist commemorative ceremony in January in Rome during which hundreds of men performed the fascist salute.

Rampelli has confirmed he was present at the event’s official ceremony, which marked the 46th anniversary of the killing of three militants from the neofascist Italian Social Movement that eventually morphed into Meloni’s Brothers of Italy. But he denied being there during the fascist display. He has accused Jebreal of spreading what he regarded as “misinformation”.

Jebreal, who grew up in an orphanage in Jerusalem, believes the legal action is part of a broader attempt by Meloni’s government to suppress dissent.

Meloni has nurtured a more moderate, pragmatic image since taking power, earning herself approval from world leaders.

But people should not be fooled, warned Jebreal, who fears Meloni is slowly dismantling the foundations of democracy.

“Growing up in the Middle East, I would watch on TV as dictators fed propaganda and paranoia to keep a population fearful and docile. They would promote conspiracy theories, criminalise the opposition, and suppress the press for simply asking questions. It is the same playbook from the Middle East to Moscow to Hungary. And this is precisely Meloni’s strategy for Italy.”

Jebreal warns that the government’s violent words may lead to actual violence. She pointed to a recent brawl in parliament between deputies from Meloni’s coalition and those from the opposition, with a member of the Five Star Movement needing medical assistance. Instead of condemning the violence, Meloni said her deputies had been provoked.

“That sent a chilling message,” said Jebreal. “It normalised violence.”

Meloni is also ardently pushing a bill that would allow a prime minister to be directly elected, as long as a candidate has the support of at least 55% of seats. She argues that this would help end Italy’s revolving-door governments. But critics have compared the bill to a constitutional change made by Mussolini and fear that it could lead Italy towards authoritarianism. Jebreal believes the move is part of Meloni’s attempt to “consolidate power” while eroding the checks and balances on the office of the president of the republic.

Jebreal regularly returns to Italy, a country she loves and still calls home. “Italy taught me that defending democracy is paramount,” she said. “It is a country reborn from the ashes of fascism. To witness any backslide towards authoritarianism is thus terrifying.”

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Two teenagers die while swimming at New York’s Coney Island

Witnesses say two young women, aged 17 and 18, went into rough seas during a storm

Two teenagers died while swimming at Coney Island beach in New York, police said.

Police received an emergency call for a water rescue in the area of Stillwell Avenue and Boardwalk West at 8.10pm on Friday, the New York police department said.

Officers arriving at the scene were informed that two young women, aged 17 and 18, had gone into the water and disappeared from view, police said.

Officers from the department’s aviation, harbour and scuba units conducted a search. Divers removed both women from the water, police said.

They were taken to hospital where they were pronounced dead, according to police, who said the investigation was continuing.

Witnesses told WABC-TV that a rainstorm began and most people at the beach took shelter, but the two young women went into the rough water.

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Théo Hernandez hits the spot as France beat Portugal in shootout to progress

Two teams who would not have scored all weekend finally found their range in the shootout but, eventually, somebody had to miss. It was harsh on João Félix that his aberration, a crisp but fractionally wayward penalty that rapped Mike Maignan’s right post, was decisive given he was not on the pitch for most of the fare that had preceded it. But it was fitting that this protracted, oddly absorbing tie went the distance and entirely in keeping with their performance over the past three weeks that France somehow pulled through.

Théo Hernandez ensured that, making it five successful conversions from five. As he stepped up Kylian Mbappé, withdrawn during extra time and clearly uncomfortable from an earlier blow to his broken nose, had crouched on the touchline and wrung his hands. The entire night had been imbued with an anxious, skittish, taut quality more befitting of a final. Mbappé watched his teammate convert and Spain now stand between him and the real thing.

Presumably the prospect of an unfulfilled tournament’s work had been racing through Mbappé’s mind. He has done his best given, in his own words, the view through his mask reminds him of 3D spectacles. This affair had, once a slow-burning first half was put aside, certainly been anything but flat and examples were served up regularly of the impotence that both sides had surmounted in getting this far.

The biggest reminder of all came three minutes into extra time after Francisco Conceição, the Portugal substitute, had scorched to the right byline and served the ball up on a plate. There was an era when its recipient, Cristiano Ronaldo, scored these in his sleep but his body shape was all wrong and he effected a rugby conversion from eight yards. Conceição, 18 years Ronaldo’s junior, ran over to console his captain. Heaven forfend a repeat of Monday night’s tears.

It was the closest Ronaldo came to goal all night, save for a successfully converted penalty to open Portugal’s set. An earlier free-kick, afforded him without quarrel because Bruno Fernandes had been withdrawn, was planted into the wall. There remain a subset who will not want to hear it but the fact he was still on the pitch after two hours made no sense. Persisting with Ronaldo against most available logic has become akin to drunkenly calling a former partner; little good has come of it for Roberto Martínez and Portugal.

He had attempted a first-half sprint before being shepherded away by an almost apologetic William Saliba; the rest of his contribution had amounted to the occasional lay-off in midfield and it felt unbecoming for a genuine icon of the sport, once the second-best player in the world, to remain in situ while an accomplished and mobile young forward in Gonçalo Ramos was unused.

That is not a blanket comment on footballing old age. For a complete contrast witness Pepe, who at 41 put on a masterclass here. One passage of play, which came towards the end of normal time straight after the equally exceptional Saliba had made a heroic block, encapsulated him better than words ever could. The blisteringly quick Marcus Thuram had just arrived on the scene for France and blazed a trail down the wing but Pepe, brain and legs in glorious sync, kept pace over fully 60 yards and was able to avert danger. Pepe ensured his pleasure was made fully known to Thuram; advanced years have, in his case, certainly not brought docility.

It was an evening to admire defensive arts far more than any of the attacking play that, while swinging from end to end like a basketball match for much of the second hour, generally ended in head-banging frustration. How to analyse two teams who, stacked with talent and so utterly accomplished in most of their movements, simply froze every time the chance came to convert? Portugal, the better side overall, will not enjoy poring over the component parts of their failure.

For all Ronaldo will be under the microscope there was the moment when, with virtually the last action before penalties, the left-back Nuno Mendes shot straight at Maignan from 16 yards when a finish to either side would have sparked delirium.

Maignan had earlier worked harder in denying the hugely impressive Vitinha, who should nonetheless have scored, and repelling an angled strike from Fernandes. Even Félix, deployed midway through extra time, had time to avoid his later ignominy but headed into the side netting. Portugal had the game’s best forward in Rafael Leão but his endeavours, repeatedly tormenting Jules Koundé, came to nothing.

What Mbappé would have given for any such opening. He was clearly not at full tilt, João Cancelo marshalling him adeptly before Nélson Semedo took on the job. That did not deter him from attempting a number of shots from around the penalty area; in his best nick at least one of them would surely have troubled Diogo Costa, who saved well from Hernandez in the opening period, but his end product was tentative.

The most painful moment for Mbappé came when, early in the second half, he strained to defend a corner and felt the full impact of a Bernardo Silva header. Obviously in discomfort, he removed the mask and sought treatment before carrying on until his eventual removal. France, without a goal in open play from any of their own players, soothed the agony later on but will need him badly from here.

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King Charles ruffles feathers as he drops royal patronage for pigeon racing

Monarch’s decision follows opposition from animal rights activists, leading to fears the sport’s days are numbered

The king has upset the pigeon racing community after dropping the monarchy’s official support amid opposition from animal rights activists.

King Charles has ended royal patronage for pigeon racing, a sport his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, grandfather George VI, great-grandfather George V, and great-great-grandfather Edward VII all took part in enthusiastically.

The monarch has declined to take on two patronages held by the late queen: the Royal Pigeon Racing Association, the sport’s governing body in the UK, and the country’s premier club, the National Flying Club.

Some in the sport now fear there is worse to come, and that King Charles may ultimately end his family’s participation in the sport entirely and shut the royal pigeon loft at his Sandringham estate.

The royal family have taken part in the sport since Belgium’s King Leopold II gave Queen Victoria racing pigeons in 1886.

Since then, there has been a royal loft at Sandringham from which birds wearing the monarch’s cypher on their legs and travelling in boxes bearing the royal crest have been taken to compete in races. The royal loft got a £40,000 renovation in 2015 when Queen Elizabeth won planning permission to build a new residence, complete with top-of-the range nesting boxes for her 200 pigeons.

But some leading figures in the sport now fear its days are numbered. “I should think in about 18 months or two years they will probably dismantle it,” said Paul Naum, treasurer of the National Flying Club. Naum was critical of the king’s decision to decline the patronage. “We are so disappointed,” he said. “We’ve always had a member of the royal family as our patron and we’ve always been proud of it. It’s a working man’s sport, and it’s taken that privilege away.”

Naum blamed the monarch’s apparent loss of enthusiasm for the sport on protests from the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta), which has lobbied the king to end his support for pigeon racing, arguing that it is cruel and results in thousands of exhausted or disoriented birds dying in races each year, especially when flying home across the Channel.

“I think it’s PETA that’s done it,” Naum said. “No matter what we seem to do, we always get back to a complaint about something. We know who’s behind it most of the time.”

In February, the Royal Pigeon Racing Association rejected the idea that the sport is cruel. Richard Chambers, the Association’s head of national development, said: “A pigeon will only do what it wants to do.”

Ingrid Newkirk, the founder of Peta, said: “Peta applauded King Charles for sparing birds when he banned foie gras from all royal events and residences, and we now thank him for ending his patronage of pigeon racing clubs that send birds to their death, facing storms and sea crossings in their loyal quest to return to their life partner and young … we hope that next the king will disband the royal loft and use it as a sanctuary for lost, injured, or unwanted birds.”

The Royal Household said the king had been forced to give up some of his late mother’s patronages because of the pressure of work. They are among 200 of Queen Elizabeth’s patronages that the king dropped after a review in May of about 1,000 organisations.

A palace spokesperson declined to comment.

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Cannabis medications could be eligible for FDA approval under proposed DEA rules

For the first time, cannabis plant would drastically shift federal legal status from narcotic to regulated medication

The US Drug Enforcement Administration has proposed new rules that mean, for the first time, medications containing delta-9 THC from the cannabis plant could be eligible for approval by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The rules, if enacted, would move the cannabis plant from a schedule I to a schedule III substance, so its federal legal status would shift drastically from a narcotic with “no accepted medical use” to a regulated medication.

Nearly 4 million Americans are already using medical cannabis in states where it’s been legalized, contradicting federal laws. Given that so many Americans already have access to some form of medical cannabis, it’s unclear whether pharmaceutical companies would benefit from seeking FDA approval for cannabis-based drugs.

Igor Grant, director of the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at the University of California, San Diego, thinks that the way legalization happened might discourage pharmaceutical companies from investing in cannabis.

“The states have got way ahead of the federal government,” he said. “Putting it the other way, the federal government has been way behind the states and public opinion.”

Jahan Marcu, who wrote the book Cannabis Innovations on hemp and cannabis regulation, agrees, and is “skeptical about the notion that there will be a sudden wave of cannabis-derived drugs submitted for FDA approval following rescheduling”.

States that have legalized cannabis have been allowing it to be sold outside the federal regulatory system for a long time now, making FDA approval less necessary. Marcu added that estimates suggest consumers already have millions of hemp- and cannabis-based products to choose from.

That’s hard for drug companies to compete with. Grant notes that “because of this disconnect, it may not actually be very profitable for pharmaceutical companies to get into this because they’re competing with cheap products that people can get through dispensaries.

“So what’s the financial incentive for big pharma to do that? I don’t know. I’m not an economist, but I think that may be a consideration here.”

On the other hand, some pharmaceutical companies have already put dollars towards exploring medical cannabis. In 2022, Pfizer acquired Arena Pharmaceuticals, which focuses some of its research on medical cannabis.

Dr Peter Grinspoon, a physician and Harvard Medical School instructor who wrote Seeing Through the Smoke on medical cannabis, says “it’s sort of an interesting dance between the pharmaceutical companies and the cannabis proponents”.

“The pharmaceutical companies resisted every single state-level initiative [for cannabis legalization], because why would they want people to grow something for free when they could be selling them an expensive drug?” he added.

One study estimated that cannabis legalization has already cost pharmaceutical companies billions of dollars. A survey published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (Jama) showed that more than half of adults using cannabis to manage chronic pain had reduced their use of prescription opioids and over-the-counter drugs. Still, businesses that are threatened by cannabis legalization may realize there is only one way to compete, says Grinspoon: “Now that legalization is sort of winning the day, I think some of the pharmaceutical companies are buying into some of the cannabis companies. If you can’t beat them, join them. Same with the alcohol companies.”

But it’s a lot more expensive to develop a drug for FDA approval than it is to develop a CBD soda, for example.

“There’s a whole process, phase one, phase two, phase three studies. It costs hundreds of millions of dollars,” says Grinspoon.

Typically, pharmaceutical companies need to first prove a drug is promising with animal testing, then do multiple phases of studies with larger and larger groups of people, sometimes thousands. At any point in this process, the drug could prove to be insufficiently safe and effective, and never make it to market. A recent study estimated that it costs nearly a billion dollars to bring a new drug to market if you account for the cost of failed trials as well as successful ones.

Despite these hurdles, one drug company has already had success.

Jazz Pharmaceuticals, headquartered in Ireland, developed Epidiolex, a very pure form of CBD that’s FDA-authorized for rare seizures. Unlike delta-9 THC, CBD is already federally legal because of the 2018 Farm Bill.

Marcu says that, theoretically, pharmaceutical companies could more easily profit from medical cannabis research if they could get drugs approved in multiple countries, especially those where cannabis is less readily available. Epidiolex is approved in the EU and South Korea as well as the US. In an email, a Jazz Pharmaceuticals spokesperson said the company is currently working on getting the drug approved in Japan as well, and that they are evaluating other, undisclosed cannabinoid-based drugs.

If most pharmaceutical companies end up deciding that it’s just not profitable to research medical cannabis, we might never fully understand the plant’s medical potential, says Grinspoon.

The FDA approval process helps researchers refine medications and make them more effective, he said: “Are there different doses that are better for different populations? Does the tincture work better for some people? Does an inhaler or skin patch or suppository work better for some conditions?” Precise formulations of different cannabinoids could also have effects we can’t predict, he continued: “Imagine if we could hone that down and really get more designer drug about the effects we’re seeking. [It could be] remarkable what the pharmaceutical companies come up with.”

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