Netanyahu tells Macron timing wrong for Iran talks: statement

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a cornerstone-laying ceremony for Mobileye's center in Jerusalem August 27, 2019. Abir Sultan/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday to avoid new talks with Israel’s regional arch-foe Iran, his office said, as European leaders pushed to save the 2015 nuclear deal.

“This is precisely the wrong timing to hold talks with Iran, while it is increasing its aggression in the region,” Netanyahu told Macron in a telephone conversation that was initiated by the French leader, according to the Israeli statement.

Macron on Sunday paved the way for a potential breakthrough in the standoff between Washington and Tehran over the nuclear deal after Iran’s foreign minister made a flying visit for talks with host France at the G7 summit.

On Monday, at the G7 summit, U.S. President Donald Trump said that he would meet Iran’s president under the right circumstances and that talks were underway to see how countries could open credit lines to keep Iran’s economy afloat.

The nuclear deal has been in jeopardy since the United States withdrew from it last year and re-imposed economic sanctions, seeking to push Tehran into wider security concessions including curbs on its ballistic missile program.

Netanyahu, who sees Iran as a mortal threat and has long opposed the nuclear deal, has urged that sanctions be re-imposed on Tehran. He has so far been in lockstep with the Trump administration over its Iran policy.

On Tuesday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the Islamic Republic would not talk to the United States until all sanctions imposed on Tehran are lifted.

Rouhani said Iran was always ready to hold talks. “But first the U.S. should act by lifting all illegal, unjust and unfair sanctions imposed on Iran,” he said.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said on Friday that the European Union will work to preserve the nuclear deal and would welcome any moves to add to its conditions.

Macron’s diplomatic moves came as Israel-Iran tensions flared. Last Saturday, Israel’s military struck in Syria in what it described as the thwarting of an Iranian-led killer-drone attack on Israeli targets.

On Thursday, Israel accused Iran of stepping up efforts to provide the Lebanese Hezbollah militia with precision-guided missile production facilities.

“Israel will defend itself against any attacks and prevent enemies that seek its destruction from obtaining nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu told Macron, according to the statement.

Israel and the Iranian-backed Shi’ite Hezbollah are on high alert after drones were used on Sunday to attack what a security official in the region described as a target linked to precision-guided missile projects.

Hezbollah has blamed Israel for the rare strike in Beirut, and said it will retaliate. The heavily armed group has denied harboring such missile facilities.

(Reporting by Maayan Lubell, Editing by William Maclean)

Record number of U.S. Marines to train in Australia in symbolic challenge to China

FILE PHOTO - U.S. Marines aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard amphibious assault ship stand in formation during a ceremony marking the start of Talisman Saber 2017, a biennial joint military exercise between the United States and Australia aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard amphibious assault ship on the the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Sydney, Australia, June 29, 2017. REUTERS/Jason Reed/File Photo

By Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – The United States will deploy a record number of Marines to train in Australia, the Australian defense minister said on Friday, as Washington seeks to counter what it describes as Chinese aggression in the region.

Payne said 1,587 U.S. Marines will spend six months training in Australia’s remote north, an increase of nearly 27 percent on its 2017 rotation for the program known as the Force Posture Initiatives.

“The U.S. military plays a vital role in underwriting security and stability across the Indo-Pacific, and the Force Posture Initiatives will be an essential component in preserving stability and security over the coming decades,” Defence Minister Marise Payne said in a statement.

The deployment, first introduced in 2011 as part of a U.S. “pivot” to Asia, has emerged as a key indicator of Washington’s commitment to the region under U.S. President Donald Trump and his willingness to counter Chinese influence in a region where tensions have spiked amid disputes over the South China Sea.

China claims most of the South China Sea, an important trade route that is also believed to contain large quantities of oil and natural gas, and has been building artificial islands on reefs, some with ports and air strips.

In a move likely to irk Beijing, the U.S. Marines will train with personnel from Australia, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, some of which also have claims in the South China Sea.

“China will monitor whatever the U.S. does and it would prefer that the United States not work with the Asian countries included in these exercises,” said Euan Graham, director of the international security program at Australian think tank the Lowy Institute.

“Beijing would like to deal one-on-one with Southeast Asia nations that have counter claims,” he said.

The U.S. Marines will also bring additional military equipment, including helicopters and F-18 jets, Payne said.

The military deployment also threatens to further weaken Australia-Chinese relations.

Australia, a staunch U.S. ally with no claim to the South China Sea, has long maintained its neutrality in the dispute to protect its economic relationship with China.

But bilateral relations have soured in recent months after Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said China was improperly interfering in Canberra’s affairs, an accusation that triggered a rare protest from Beijing.

(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Paul Tait)

Iran urges Turkey to stop army offensive in northern Syria

Smoke rises from the Syria's Afrin region, as it is pictured from near the Turkish town of Hassa, on the Turkish-Syrian border in Hatay province, Turkey January 20, 2018.

LONDON (Reuters) – Iran urged Turkey on Monday to stop its military offensive in Syria, saying the operation in the northern Afrin region breached Syrian sovereignty and would increase tension in the war-damaged country.

Turkey last month launched an air and ground campaign, dubbed Operation Olive Branch, against the Kurdish YPG militia in Afrin.

“Turkey should stop its operation and respect Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi was quoted as saying by state news agency IRNA.

“Turkey’s actions can bring back insecurity, instability and terrorism to Syria,” he added.

Qasemi said any solution to the Syrian crisis should be discussed in talks in the Kazakh capital Astana that are sponsored by Russia, Iran, and Turkey.

He said Iran was in continuous talks with both Turkey and Russia about the latest developments in Syria.

Russia and Iran back Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, while Turkey supports Assad’s opponents.

Ankara considers the U.S.-backed YPG, which controls Afrin, to be a terrorist group and an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which has fought an insurgency in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast since 1984.

The Syrian government last week called the Turkish offensive in Afrin an illegal “aggression” and said it would deal with it accordingly.

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin, Editing by William Maclean)

Taiwan president warns China against military aggression

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen speaks during the end-of-year news conference in Taipei, Taiwan December 29, 2017.

By Fabian Hamacher

TAOYUAN, Taiwan (Reuters) – Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen said on Friday China’s military ambitions are becoming more apparent and tension between Taiwan and the mainland must not be resolved through military force.

Tsai has faced increasing hostility from China since she won election early last year, with China stepping up military drills around Taiwan.

China suspects Tsai, from the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, wants to push for the self-ruled island’s formal independence, a red line for Beijing, which considers Taiwan a wayward province and sacred Chinese territory.

“China’s military activities don’t only impact the situation in the Taiwan Strait, but also in all of East Asia … This is not a problem being faced alone by Taiwan,” Tsai told reporters.

“All countries in this region who want to see peace and stability, have a consensus … and China can’t ignore this, that cross strait issues absolutely can’t be resolved through military force but through peaceful means,” Tsai said during a news conference on a stage flanked by two models of fighter jets.

Tsai, however, said her island would not be passive in the face of a more hawkish China.

“Over the past year, the morale of our military is steadily improving, support for our military is also continuously increasing. This is the most gratifying thing since I’ve become president. I hereby solemnly announce that our annual defence budget will grow steadily within a reasonable range.”

Taiwan’s defence ministry warned in a white paper this week that China’s military threat was growing by the day, with the Chinese air force carrying out 16 rounds of exercises close to Taiwan over the past year or so.

Beijing says the drills are routine and that Taiwan had better get used to them.

“We live in a fast changing geopolitical environment; China’s ambition in military expansion in the region is becoming more apparent, as evident by the People’s Liberation Army’s frequent aerial and naval activities,” Tsai said.

China has warned Taiwan against “using weapons to refuse reunification” and China’s state media has prominently featured pictures of Chinese jets flying close to the island.

Tsai has stressed she wants peace across the Taiwan Strait, but has pledged to defend Taiwan’s security and way of life.

Taiwan is well equipped with mostly U.S.-made weapons, but has been pressing Washington to sell more advanced equipment.

Democratic Taiwan has shown no interest in being run by Beijing. Taiwan’s government has accused Beijing of not understanding what democracy is about when it criticises Taipei.

(Fixes dateline to Taoyuan not Taipei)

(Additional reporting by Clare Jim in Hong Kong; Writing by James Pomfret; Editing by Ben Blanchard, Robert Birsel)

Saudi crown prince calls Iran supply of rockets ‘military aggression’

Saudi crown prince calls Iran supply of rockets 'military aggression'

DUBAI (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia’s crown prince said Iran’s supply of rockets to militias in Yemen is an act of “direct military aggression” that could be an act of war, state media reported on Tuesday.

Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s comments were published after Saudi air defense forces intercepted a ballistic missile that Saudi Arabia said was fired toward Riyadh on Saturday by the Iran-allied Houthi militia, which controls large parts of neighboring Yemen.

Saudi-led forces, which back the internationally-recognized government, have been targeting the Houthis in a war which has killed more than 10,000 people and triggered a humanitarian disaster in one of the region’s poorest countries.

The supply of rockets to the Houthi movement could “constitute an act of war against the kingdom,” state news agency SPA on Tuesday quoted Prince Salman as saying in a call with British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson.

Iran has denied it was behind the missile launch, rejecting the Saudi and U.S. statements condemning Tehran as “destructive and provocative” and “slanders”.

In reaction to the missile, the Saudi-led military coalition said on Monday it would close all air, land and sea ports to the Arabian Peninsula country.

The United Nations on Tuesday called on the coalition to re-open an aid lifeline into Yemen, saying food and medicine imports were vital for 7 million people facing famine.

“The situation is catastrophic in Yemen, it is the worst food crisis we are looking at today,” Jens Laerke of the U.N. Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) told a briefing in Geneva.

The missile launch was “most likely a war crime” Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday but also urged Saudi Arabia against restricting aid access to Yemen, where the United Nations estimates nearly 900,000 people are infected with cholera.

“This unlawful attack is no justification for Saudi Arabia to exacerbate Yemen’s humanitarian catastrophe by further restricting aid and access to the country,” it said.

The coalition said aid workers and humanitarian supplies would continue to be able to access and exit Yemen despite the temporary closure of ports but the United Nations said it was not given approval for two scheduled humanitarian flights on Monday.

The United Nations and international aid organizations have repeatedly criticized the coalition for blocking aid access, especially to northern Yemen, which is held by the Houthis.

The Saudi-led coalition has been targeting the Houthis since they seized parts of Yemen in 2015, including the capital Sanaa, forcing President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to flee and seek help from neighboring Saudi Arabia.

In an interview with CNN television on Monday, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir accused the armed Lebanese Hezbollah group of firing the missile at Riyadh from Houthi-held territory.

“With regards to the missile…that was launched on Saudi territory, it was an Iranian missile launched by Hezbollah from territory occupied by the Houthis in Yemen.”

He said the missile was similar to one launched in July at Yanbu in Saudi Arabia and was manufactured in Iran, disassembled and smuggled into Yemen, then reassembled by the operatives of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah, “then it was launched into Saudi Arabia.”

(Reporting by Sylvia Westall and Rania El Gamal in Dubai and Tom Perry in Beirut and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Writing By Maha El Dahan; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg/William Maclean)