Iran says no limits on enrichment, stepping further from 2015 deal: TV

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran announced on Sunday it would abandon limitations on enriching uranium, taking a further step back from commitments to a 2015 nuclear deal with six major powers, but it would continue to cooperate with the U.N. nuclear watchdog.

Iran had been expected to announce its latest stance on the deal this weekend. But its announcement coincided with a major escalation of hostilities with Washington following the U.S. killing of top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike on Friday in Baghdad.

State television said Iran would not respect any limits set down in the pact on the country’s nuclear work: whether the limit on its number of uranium enrichment centrifuges to its enrichment capacity, the level to which uranium could be enriched, the amount of stockpiled enriched uranium or Iran’s nuclear Research and Development activities.

“Iran will continue its nuclear enrichment with no restrictions …. and based on its technical needs,” a government statement cited by television said.

Iran has steadily overstepped the deal’s limits on its nuclear activities in response to the United States’ withdrawal from the accord in 2018 and Washington’s reimposition of sanctions that have crippled Iran’s oil trade.

Under the nuclear deal, Tehran agreed to curb its nuclear activities in exchange for the lifting of most international sanctions.

Relations between Tehran and Washington sharply deteriorated after President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the deal. Iran has criticized European powers for failing to salvage the pact by shielding its economy from U.S. sanctions.

Sunday’s statement said Tehran can quickly reverse its steps if U.S. sanctions are removed.

“This step is within JCPOA (deal) & all 5 steps are reversible upon EFFECTIVE implementation of reciprocal obligations,” tweeted Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif referencing the acronym that stands for the deal’s official name, “The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.”

A European Diplomat, who declined to be named, said the “deal is all but dead,” but said that Europe would do everything possible to slow proliferation and “try and save what can be saved.”

Mark Fitzpatrick, associate fellow and nuclear non-proliferation expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said Iran’s latest step left room for diplomacy.

“They are not saying how far they will push the enrichment or the number of centrifuges they’ll operate,” Fitzpatrick told Reuters. “I think they have reserved a lot of room for negotiation and for taking further steps if they need to.”

‘MAXIMUM PRESSURE’

Washington says the “maximum pressure” campaign it started after withdrawing from the nuclear agreement will force Iran to negotiate a more sweeping deal, covering its ballistic missile program and its role in Middle Eastern conflicts. Iran says it will not negotiate a new deal.

Tehran has rejected Western assertions that it has sought to develop nuclear weapons.

Iran has already breached many of the deal’s restrictions on its nuclear activities, including on the purity to which it enriches uranium, its stock of enriched uranium, which models of centrifuge it enriches uranium with and where it enriches uranium.

It has, however, not gone far over the purity allowed – the deal sets a limit of 3.67% and Iran has stayed around 4.5% in recent months, well below the 20% it reached before the deal and the roughly 90% that is weapons-grade.

The deal as a whole was designed to increase the time Iran would need to obtain enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb if it wanted one – the main obstacle to producing a nuclear weapon – from around two or three months.

(Additional reporting by Luke Baker in Brussels and Francois Murphy in Vienna and John Irish in Paris; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Kevin Liffey, Frances Kerry and Chris Reese)

Iran’s Soleimani and Iraq’s Muhandis killed in U.S. air strike: militia spokesman

By Ahmed Rasheed

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force, and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis were killed early on Friday in an air strike on their convoy at Baghdad airport, an Iraqi militia spokesman told Reuters.

“The American and Israeli enemy is responsible for killing the mujahideen Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Qassem Soleimani,” said Ahmed al-Assadi, a spokesman for Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces umbrella grouping of Iran-backed militias.

Strikes had been carried out against two targets linked to Iran in Baghdad on Thursday, U.S. officials told Reuters. The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, declined to give any further details.

Iraqi paramilitary groups said on Friday that three rockets hit Baghdad International Airport, killing five members of Iraqi paramilitary groups and two “guests.”

The rockets landed near the air cargo terminal, burning two vehicles, killing and injuring several people.

Soleimani, who has led the foreign arm of the Revolutionary Guards and has had a key role in fighting in Syria and Iraq, acquired celebrity status at home and abroad.

He was instrumental in the spread of Iranian influence in the Middle East, which the United States and Tehran’s regional foes Saudi Arabia and Israel have struggled to keep in check.

He survived several assassination attempts against him by Western, Israeli and Arab agencies over the past two decades.

Soleimani’s Quds Force, tasked with carrying out operations beyond Iran’s borders, shored up support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad when he looked close to defeat in the civil war raging since 2011 and also helped militiamen defeat Islamic State in Iraq.

Soleimani became head of the Quds Force in 1998, a position in which he kept a low profile for years while he strengthened Iran’s ties with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government and Shi’ite militia groups in Iraq.

(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed; Additional reporting by Idrees Ali in Washington; Writing by Ahmed Aboulenein and Samia Nakhoul; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Trump aides call U.S. strikes on Iraq and Syria ‘successful,’ warn of potential further action

By Idrees Ali and Ahmed Rasheed

WASHINGTON/BAGHDAD (Reuters) – U.S. officials said on Sunday that air strikes in Iraq and Syria against an Iran-backed militia group were successful, but warned that “additional actions” may still be taken in the region to defend U.S. interests.

The U.S. military carried out the strikes on Sunday against the Kataib Hezbollah militia group in response to the killing of a U.S. civilian contractor in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base, officials said.

U.S. President Donald Trump was briefed by his top national security advisers following the strikes at his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida.

“We will not stand for the Islamic Republic of Iran to take actions that put American men and women in jeopardy,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters after the briefing with Trump.

Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and General Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared briefly in a club ballroom to comment on the airstrikes.

Esper termed the offensive “successful,” but said that Trump was informed that a further military response could be warranted.

“We discussed with him other options that are available,” Esper said. “I would note also that we will take additional actions as necessary to ensure that we act in our own self-defense and we deter further bad behavior from militia groups or from Iran.”

Iraqi security and militia sources said at least 25 militia fighters were killed and at least 55 wounded following three U.S. air strikes in Iraq on Sunday.

At least four local Kataib Hezbollah commanders were among the dead, the sources said, adding that one of the strikes had targeted the militia group’s headquarters near the western Qaim district on the border with Syria.

The Pentagon said it had targeted three locations of the Iranian-backed Shi’ite Muslim militia group in Iraq and two in Syria. The locations included weapons storage facilities and command and control locations the group had used to plan and execute attacks on coalition forces, it said.

A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the strikes were carried out by F-15 fighter jets.

The United States had accused Kataib Hezbollah of carrying out a strike involving more than 30 rockets on Friday which killed the U.S. civilian contractor and injured four U.S. service members and two members of the Iraqi Security Forces near the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

“In response to repeated Kata’ib Hizbollah attacks on Iraqi bases that host Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) coalition forces, U.S. forces have conducted precision defensive strikes … that will degrade KH’s ability to conduct future attacks against OIR coalition forces” chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement.

Earlier this month, Pompeo blamed Iranian-backed forces for a series of attacks on bases in Iraq and warned Iran that any attacks by Tehran or proxies that harmed Americans or allies would be “answered with a decisive U.S. response.”

Tensions have heightened between Tehran and Washington since last year when Trump pulled the United States out of Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with six powers and reimposed sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali in Washington, Ahmed Rasheed in Iraq and Steve Holland in Palm Beach, Fla; Writing by Lindsay Dunsmuir, Jason Lange and James Oliphant in Washington; Editing by Tom Brown and Diane Craft)

U.S. launches strike in southern Libya as U.N. warns of escalation

By Aidan Lewis

CAIRO (Reuters) – U.S. forces said on Wednesday they killed 11 suspected militants in their second air strike in a week near the southern Libyan town of Murzuq, as the U.N. envoy warned of a growing risk of armed escalation and rights abuses in the country.

The strike comes as rival factions have been locked in a battle around the capital Tripoli, about 500 miles (800km) to the north, which forces loyal to eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar have been trying to capture since April.

The U.S. attack, carried out on Tuesday deep in Libya’s southern desert, followed a Sept. 19 strike that the U.S. said had killed eight suspected militants.

“This air strike was conducted to eliminate ISIS (Islamic State) terrorists and deny them the ability to conduct attacks on the Libyan people,” Major General William Gayler, director of operations for U.S. Africa Command, said in a statement.

Some Islamic State militants retreated south into Libya’s desert as the group lost its stronghold in the coastal city of Sirte at the end of 2016.

The U.S., which has carried out occasional strikes in desert areas, has said it will not allow militants to use the fighting around Tripoli for cover.

The offensive on Tripoli by Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) upended U.N.-led plans to broker a political settlement in Libya and soon stalled in the capital’s outskirts.

The conflict has spread outside Tripoli, with air and drone strikes against the port city of Misrata, Sirte, and Jufra in central Libya, U.N. Libya envoy Ghassan Salame told the U.N. Human Rights Council on Wednesday.

It had also triggered a “micro-conflict” in Murzuq, where more than 100 civilians are reported to have been killed over the past two months, he said.

“The conflict risks escalating to full-blown civil war,” Salame said by video link. “It is fanned by widespread violations of the U.N. arms embargo by all parties and external actors.”

“Serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law have been committed with total impunity, including increased summary executions, enforced disappearances, torture and ill-treatment as well as conflict-related sexual violence.”

Libya has been divided between rival factions based in Tripoli and the east since 2014, three years after a NATO-backed uprising ended Muammar Gaddafi’s four-decade rule.

Haftar’s LNA is battling forces aligned with the Government of National Accord (GNA), which was set up in 2016 following a U.N.-brokered deal.

Haftar’s foreign backers include the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, who diplomats and analysts say are vying for influence in the oil-rich nation with regional rivals Turkey and Qatar.

At least 128,000 people have been displaced by the fighting since April, according to U.N. estimates.

(Reporting by Aidan Lewis in Cairo and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

Netanyahu tells Hezbollah’s Nasrallah to ‘calm down’ after drone incident

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a news briefing following the talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Kiev, Ukraine August 19, 2019. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah on Tuesday to “calm down” after Nasrallah said his movement was preparing a response to the crash of two Israeli drones in a Beirut suburb.

In a speech on Sunday, Nasrallah accused Israel of carrying out an attack with an exploding drone earlier that day.

“I say to the Israeli army on the border from tonight, stand guard (on high alert). Wait for us one, two, three, four days,” said Nasrallah, whose movement last waged a major war against Israel in 2006.

One of the two crashing drones exploded near the ground, causing some damage to Hezbollah’s media center in the southern suburbs of the capital which it dominates. Israeli officials have declined to comment when asked if Israel was responsible.

“I heard what Nasrallah said. I suggest to Nasrallah to calm down. He knows well that Israel knows how to defend itself and to pay back its enemies,” Netanyahu said in a speech.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun said on Monday his country had a right to defend itself, likening Israeli drone strikes to a “declaration of war”. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri urged diplomats to help prevent “dangerous escalation”.

Late on Saturday, Israeli air strikes killed two Lebanese Hezbollah fighters in Syria, where the group is providing military support to Damascus.

Israel, which regularly strikes Iranian-linked targets in Syria, said it hit a compound controlled by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Quds force, accusing it of planning killer drone attacks.

Netanyahu, speaking at the groundbreaking for the Jerusalem headquarters of a self-driving car technology firm, also issued warnings to Lebanon and Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds force, which the Israeli leader said aspires to destroy Israel.

“Watch what you say, and moreover be careful about what you do,” Netanyahu said.

Soleimani, reacting to the Israeli airstrike in Syria and the Beirut drones incident, wrote on Twitter on Sunday that “these were the last struggles” of Israel.

Andrea Tenenti, spokesman for the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) that patrols the border with Israel, told Lebanon’s state news agency NNA that the situation in the area remains quiet.

“UNIFIL continues to work with the parties to ensure that there are no misunderstandings or incidents that may endanger the cessation of hostilities,” Tenenti said, referring to a U.N. Security Council resolution that called for an end to the fighting in 2006.

In public comments during a visit on Sunday to Israel’s north, where he met army commanders, Netanyahu appeared to hold out the prospect of targeting Lebanon directly for attack if Hezbollah struck Israel.

“Any country that allows its territory to be used for aggression against Israel will face the consequences, and I repeat: the country will face the consequences,” he said, echoing a message Israeli leaders have voiced in recent years.

(Additional reporting by Lisa Barrington in Beirut and Ari Rabinovitch in; Editing by Ari Rabinovitch, Alison Williams and Peter Graff)

Iran to boost uranium enrichment level above nuclear pact’s limit

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is seen during meeting with health ministry top officials in Tehran, Iran, June 25, 2019. Official President website/Handout via REUTERS

By Babak Dehghanpisheh

GENEVA (Reuters) – Iran will boost its uranium enrichment after July 7 to whatever levels it needs beyond the cap set in the landmark 2015 nuclear deal, President Hassan Rouhani said on Wednesday, while calling on Washington to rejoin the pact.

Iran announced this week it has stockpiled more low-enriched uranium than is permitted under the accord, a move that prompted U.S. President Donald Trump – who withdrew the United States from the deal last year – to warn Iran was “playing with fire”.

European co-signatories said on Tuesday they were “extremely concerned” by Tehran’s apparent breach of the deal while Israel said it was preparing for possible involvement in any military confrontation between Iran and the United States.

Weeks of tensions crested last month when Tehran shot down a U.S. military surveillance drone and Trump responded with a decision to launch air strikes only to call them off at the last minute. Washington also accused Iran of being behind attacks on several oil tankers in the Gulf, which Tehran denies.

“Our level of enrichment will no longer be 3.67. We will put this commitment aside by whatever amount we feel like, by whatever amount is our necessity, our need. We will take this above 3.67,” said Rouhani, according to IRIB news agency.

Uranium refined to a fissile purity of 3.67% is deemed suitable for electricity generation and is the maximum allowed by the deal. Enrichment to 90% yields bomb-grade material.

Rouhani added that the Islamic Republic’s actions were reversible. “All of our actions can be returned to the previous condition within one hour, why are you worried?” he said.

His tone was unusually tough. Rouhani was the architect of the nuclear pact and is seen as a pragmatist, unlike senior clerics in Iran’s ruling elite who opposed his opening to the West and have kept up their denunciations of the United States.

Rouhani further urged the Trump administration to “adopt a rational approach again” and return to the negotiating table.

Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy aims to push Iran into negotiate a wider-ranging deal also reining in its ballistic missile program and its backing of proxies around the Middle East in a struggle with Saudi Arabia for regional dominance.

HEAVY-WATER REACTOR

Rouhani said that if the other signatories did not protect trade with Iran promised under the deal but blocked by Trump’s reimposition of tough sanctions, Tehran would also start to revive its Arak heavy-water reactor after July 7.

As required by the accord, Iran said in January 2016 that it had removed the core of the reactor and filled it with cement.

“From (July 7) onward with the Arak reactor, if you don’t operate (according to) the program and time frame of all the commitments you’ve given us, we will return the Arak reactor to its previous condition,” said Rouhani.

“Meaning, the condition that you say is dangerous and can produce plutonium,” he said, referring to a key potential component of a nuclear bomb. “We will return to that unless you take action regarding all your commitments regarding Arak.”

He kept the door open to negotiations, saying Iran would again reduce its stockpile of enriched uranium below the 300-kilogram limit set by the nuclear pact if signatories Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China honored their deal pledges.

Iran will gain nothing by departing from the terms of the deal, the French foreign ministry cautioned on Wednesday.

“Putting (the deal) into question will only increase the already heightened tensions in the region,” ministry spokesman Agnes von der Muhll told reporters in a daily briefing.

U.S. SANCTIONS NOOSE

Tensions between Washington and Tehran have escalated since Trump pulled Washington out of the pact in May 2018 and acted to bar all international sales of Iranian oil, the Islamic Republic’s economic lifeblood.

The European signatories to the accord have sought to pull the two longstanding adversaries back from the verge of military conflict, fearing a mistake could spiral into a wider Middle East war endangering global security and energy supplies.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif denies that Iran is in violation of the nuclear accord by exceeding the cap on low-enriched uranium, saying Iran is exercising its right to respond after the U.S. withdrawal.

The nuclear accord lifted most global sanctions against Iran in return for curbs on its uranium enrichment capacity.

It aimed to extend the time Tehran would need to produce a nuclear bomb, if it chose to, from roughly 2-3 months to a year.

Tehran has denied any intent to develop nuclear weapons.

Iran’s main demand – in talks with the European parties to the deal and as a precondition to any talks with the United States – is to be allowed to sell its oil at the levels that prevailed before Trump left the deal and restored sanctions.

Iranian crude exports were around 300,000 barrels per day or less in late June, industry sources said, a small fraction of the more than 2.5 million bpd Iran shipped in April 2018, the month before Trump abandoned the nuclear deal.

(Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Dubai, John Irish and Sudip Kar-Gupta in Paris; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Last-ditch talks to keep Iran under nuclear limits headed for failure

Iran's top nuclear negotiator Abbas Araqchi and Secretary General of the European External Action Service (EEAS) Helga Schmit attend a meeting of the JCPOA Joint Commission in Vienna, Austria, June 28, 2019. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

By John Irish and Francois Murphy

VIENNA (Reuters) – Last-ditch talks to persuade Tehran not to exceed nuclear limits within days were on course for failure on Friday, as Iranian officials said their demands had not been met and Washington rebuffed European calls to ease sanctions to allow negotiations.

A week after Washington called off air strikes just minutes before impact, diplomats say Iran is on course within days to exceed the threshold of enriched uranium allowed under its nuclear deal with world powers, which Washington quit last year.

Any such move would reshape the diplomatic landscape, at a time when European officials are warning that a small mistake on either side could push the United States and Iran to war.

Iranian officials met in Vienna with representatives of the countries that are still party to the nuclear deal — Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China. The Iranians repeated their demand that they be allowed to sell oil.

The talks were a “last chance for the remaining parties … to gather and see how they can meet their commitments towards Iran,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said.

Despite abandoning the deal, Washington has demanded European countries force Iran to continue complying with it. Iran says it cannot do so unless the Europeans provide it with some way to receive the deal’s promised economic benefits.

“For one year we exercised patience. Now it is the Europeans’ turn to exercise patience,” Mousavi said. “They should try to find solutions, practical solutions.”

French President Emmanuel Macron said this week that he would ask U.S. President Donald Trump to ease sanctions to allow negotiations to begin. But the plea seemed to have fallen on deaf ears, with Trump’s Iran envoy saying on Friday sanctions would remain in place to end Iranian oil exports altogether.

“We will sanction any imports of Iranian crude oil… There are right now no oil waivers in place,” Brian Hook, the U.S. Special Representative On Iran, told reporters in London.

European countries, which opposed Trump’s decision to abandon the deal and reimpose sanctions, have promised to find ways to allow Iran access to trade in return for continuing to comply. But in practice, the effort has failed, with major European companies canceling all plans to invest in Iran.

DEADLINES

Iran has set a number of deadlines in recent weeks after which it would cease complying with specific terms of the nuclear deal. The first expired on Thursday, the date Tehran said the quantity of enriched uranium it is holding could exceed the deal’s permissible threshold.

Diplomats in Vienna, headquarters of the U.N. nuclear agency IAEA, told Reuters on Thursday that the latest data from inspectors suggested the threshold had not yet been breached, but it could be as soon as Saturday or Sunday.

Another deadline, when Iran says it could enrich uranium to a purity forbidden under the deal, expires on July 7.

Iran says that if it does exceed thresholds, the steps would be reversible and it still aims to keep the deal in place.

The crisis between Iran and the United States that began with Trump’s withdrawal from the pact has escalated in recent weeks after Washington sharply tightened its sanctions from the start of May to halt all Iranian oil exports.

The Trump administration argues that the 2015 agreement reached under his predecessor Barack Obama was too weak because many terms are not permanent and it excludes non-nuclear issues such as missiles and Iran’s regional behavior. Washington says the aim of sanctions is to force Tehran to renegotiate.

Tehran says there can be no talks as long as sanctions are in place and Washington is ignoring the deal it already signed.

The confrontation took on a military dimension in recent weeks, with Washington blaming Tehran for attacks on ships in the Gulf, which Iran denies. Iran shot down a U.S. drone last week, saying it had entered its air space. Washington said the drone was in international skies, and Trump ordered, then aborted, retaliatory air strikes on Iranian targets.

Any move by Iran that violated the terms of the nuclear deal would put pressure on the Europeans to take sides.

“We will repeat to the Iranians that nuclear issues are not negotiable. We want them to stay in the accord, but we won’t accept them messing us around,” a senior European diplomat said before Friday’s meeting.

The cornerstone of European efforts to placate the Iranians is the creation of INSTEX, a mechanism to use barter to allow some trade that would avoid entanglement in U.S. sanctions.

Almost six months after it was created, it is still not operational and diplomats say it will be able to handle only small volumes for items like medicine, not the large oil sales Iran is seeking.

“If INSTEX fails to meet Iran’s demands within the framework of the nuclear deal, we will take the next steps more decisively,” Mousavi said, adding that “the implementation of the EU’s trade mechanism has been delayed due to some lack of commitments”.

(Additional reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin and Guy Faulconbridge in London and Parisa Hafezi in Dubai; Editing by Peter Graff)

Iran says U.S. cyber attacks failed, hints talks are possible

FILE PHOTO: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani delivers a speech at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) in Dushanbe, Tajikistan June 15, 2019. REUTERS/Mukhtar Kholdorbekov/File Photo

By Stephen Kalin and Bozorgmehr Sharafedin

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia/LONDON (Reuters) – Iran said on Monday U.S. cyber attacks on its military had failed, while also hinting that it could be willing to discuss new concessions with Washington if the United States were to lift sanctions and offer new incentives.

The longtime foes have come the closest in years to a direct military confrontation in the past week with the shooting down of a U.S. drone by Iran. U.S. President Donald Trump aborted a retaliatory strike just minutes before impact.

U.S. media have reported that the United States launched cyber attacks even as Trump called off the air strike. The Washington Post said on Saturday that the cyber strikes, which had been planned previously, had disabled Iranian rocket launch systems. U.S. officials have declined to comment.

“They try hard, but have not carried out a successful attack,” Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, Iran’s minister for information and communications technology, said on Twitter.

“Media asked if the claimed cyber attacks against Iran are true,” he said. “Last year we neutralized 33 million attacks with the (national) firewall.”

Allies of the United States have been calling for steps to defuse the crisis, saying they fear a small mistake on either side could trigger war.

“We are very concerned. We don’t think either side wants a war, but we are very concerned that we could get into an accidental war and we are doing everything we can to ratchet things down,” British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo jetted to the Middle East to discuss Iran with the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two Gulf Arab allies that favor a hard line. Pompeo met King Salman as well as the king’s son, de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The U.S. special representative for Iran, Brian Hook, visited Oman and was headed to Europe to explain U.S. policy to allies. He told European reporters on a phone call ahead of his arrival that Trump was willing to sit down with Iran, but Iran must do a deal before sanctions could be lifted.

CONCESSIONS

U.S.-Iran relations began to deteriorate last year when the United States abandoned a 2015 agreement between Iran and world powers designed to curb Iran’s nuclear program in return for the lifting of sanctions.

They got sharply worse last month when Trump tightened sanctions, ordering all countries to stop buying Iranian oil.

Recent weeks saw a military dimension to the confrontation, with the United States blaming Iran for attacks on vessels at sea, which Iran denies. Iran shot down the drone, saying it was in its air space, which Washington disputes. Washington also blames Iran for attacks by its Yemeni allies on Saudi targets.

Washington argues that the 2015 nuclear agreement known as the JCPOA, negotiated under Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, did not go far enough, and that new sanctions are needed to force Iran back to the table to make more concessions.

Throughout the escalation, both sides have suggested they are willing to hold talks but the other side must move first. In the latest comment from Tehran, an adviser to President Hassan Rouhani repeated a longstanding demand that Washington lift sanctions in line with the deal.

But the adviser, Hesameddin Ashena, also tweeted a rare suggestion that Iran could be willing to discuss new concessions, if Washington were willing to put new incentives on the table that go beyond those in the deal.

“If they want something beyond the JCPOA, they should offer something beyond the JCPOA; with international guarantees.”

Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, Abbas Mousavi, was quoted by ISNA news agency as saying on Monday Tehran did not “want a rise of tensions and its consequences”.

U.S. allies in Europe and Asia view Trump’s decision to abandon the nuclear deal as a mistake that strengthens hardliners in Iran and weakens the pragmatic faction of Rouhani.

Trump has suggested that he backed off the military strike against Iran in part because he was not sure the country’s top leadership had intended to shoot down the drone. However, an Iranian commander said Tehran was prepared to do it again.

“Everyone saw the downing of the unmanned drone,” navy commander Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi was quoted on Sunday as saying by the Tasnim news agency. “I can assure you that this firm response can be repeated, and the enemy knows it.”

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London and Stephen Kalin in Jeddah; Additional reporting by Robin Emmott in Brussels; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Jon Boyle)

Syrians displaced in the northwest call on Turkey to open border

A displaced Syrian child sleeps on a mat laid out on the floor in an olive grove in the town of Atmeh, Idlib province, Syria May 19, 2019. Picture taken May 19, 2019. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

By Khalil Ashawi

ATMEH, Syria (Reuters) – Camped on the Turkish border to escape bombardment by Russian and Syrian government forces, many displaced Syrians are angry and frustrated that Turkey has not done more to protect them from the bombs or let them cross the frontier to safety.

The border wall a few hundred meters (yards) away offers a degree of cover for thousands of people, since air strikes are rare so close to Turkey. But it also blocks any chance they have of fleeing the conflict and joining millions of refugees abroad.

“Turkey is our only option today,” said Abu Abdallah, 51, who left his village at the start of the war in 2011 to seek sanctuary near the town of Qalaat al-Madiq, until it was captured by Syrian government forces in early May.

“We can no longer put up with living under bombardment or in the open under the trees,” said Abu Abdullah, one of thousands of Syrians living in white tents dotted around the rock-strewn olive groves, some of them only 50 meters (yards) from the border.

Some 180,000 people were displaced by the recent attacks in northwest Syria, the last major rebel stronghold. The increase in shelling killed dozens of people and marked the most intense period of violence for months between President Bashar al-Assad and the rebels, who launched a counter-attack last week.

The Syrian government says it is responding to attacks by al Qaeda-linked militants. The dominant insurgent faction in the region is the jihadist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), although the army offensive has not focused on the central Idlib area where it is most concentrated, an HTS-aligned opposition figure said.

Much of the bombardment has hit a buffer zone around Idlib province and surrounding territories which was set up by Russia and Turkey in September under a deal which put off a full-blown assault against the region and its 3 million residents.

Shells from Syrian government territory also hit a Turkish military observation post, one of 12 set up near the Idlib borders by Ankara, which backs the rebels.

At the border, many of the displaced were angry at the lack of Turkish action in response to the recent offensive, and called on Turkey to open its border to allow people to escape.

“We didn’t ask to go into Turkey before,” said 32-year-old Khsara Ahmed al-Hussein. “But when you set up a de-escalation zone and … you guarantee that I won’t get struck, but then even the Turkish observation point is struck by the regime, then what’s the point of protection if you can’t even protect yourself?”

FILE PHOTO: A general view of Atmeh camp for the displaced, in Atmeh town, Idlib province, Syria May 19, 2019. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

FILE PHOTO: A general view of Atmeh camp for the displaced, in Atmeh town, Idlib province, Syria May 19, 2019. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

“LIKE WORLD WAR THREE”

When bombardment of Hussein’s village intensified, his family dug holes in the earth outside their house and slept in them. When the situation became unbearable, they headed to the border, where he has been living under trees for two weeks.

“There were eight planes in the air, bombing intensively, as if it were World War Three,” he said.

Air strikes have hit 18 health facilities and dozens of schools, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). At least 38 children have been killed since the start of last month, Save the Children said.

Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan said last week that attacks on schools and hospitals did not constitute fighting terrorism. His defense minister spoke with his Russian counterpart on Monday about reducing tension in Idlib, Turkey’s defense ministry said.

Near the border village of Atmeh, dozens of people sat under trees with a few blankets and pillows arranged on the hard earth. A blue plastic tarp was draped over the trees to protect them from the burning sun.

Um Bassan wants to join her children who have been in Turkey for over a year, after she and their father spent everything they had to smuggle them out of Syria.

“I want this torture to end and to see my children,” she said. “No one prefers another country over their own, but I want release from the bombardment and to see my children there.”

(Writing and additional reporting by Sarah Dadouch; Editing by Dominic Evans and Edmund Blair)

Pakistan tells China of ‘deteriorating situation’ in Indian Kashmir

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi attend a meeting at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China, March 19, 2019. Andrea Verdelli/Pool via REUTERS

By Ben Blanchard

BEIJING (Reuters) – Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told his Chinese counterpart on Tuesday of the “rapidly deteriorating situation” and rights violations in Indian Kashmir, and called for India to look again at its policies there.

India launched an air strike on a militant camp inside Pakistan last month following an attack on an Indian paramilitary convoy in disputed Kashmir.

The Feb. 14 attack that killed at least 40 paramilitary police was the deadliest in Kashmir’s 30-year-long insurgency, escalating tension between the neighbors, and the subsequent air strike had heightened fears that nuclear-armed India and Pakistan could slide into a fourth war.

Speaking in Beijing standing alongside the Chinese government’s top diplomat, State Councillor Wang Yi, Qureshi said his country appreciated the role China played once again “in standing by Pakistan in these difficult times”.

“I also briefed the foreign minister on the rapidly deteriorating situation on the Indian side of Kashmir, intensification of human rights violations, especially after Pulwama,” he said, referring to where the attack took place.”This is a concern because that leads to a reaction and that reaction at times creates tensions in the region which must be avoided,” Qureshi added.

“I think there’s a need for a new assessment on how the situation on the Indian side of Kashmir should be handled by the Indians. There are now voices within India that are questioning the efficacy of the policy that they’ve followed for the last so many years,” he said, without elaborating.

Wang, who is also China’s foreign minister, said China has always believed that peace and stability in South Asia is in the joint interests of countries in the region and is what the international community wishes.

“China appreciates Pakistan’s constructive efforts to ease the situation and calls on Pakistan and India to continue to exercise restraint and resolve the differences that exist via dialogue and peaceful means.”

The sparring after the Pulwama attack had threatened to spiral out of control and only interventions by U.S. officials, including National Security Adviser John Bolton, headed off a bigger conflict, five sources familiar with the events have told Reuters.

At one stage, India threatened to fire at least six missiles at Pakistan, and Islamabad said it would respond with its own missile strikes “three times over”, said Western diplomats and government sources in New Delhi, Islamabad and Washington.

A Pakistani minister said China and the United Arab Emirates also intervened to lessen tension between the South Asian neighbors.

In a faxed statement to Reuters late on Monday, responding to a question on China’s role in reining in the crisis, its foreign ministry said peaceful coexistence between Pakistan and India was in everyone’s interest.

“As a friendly neighbor of both India and Pakistan, China pro-actively promoted peace talks and played a constructive role in easing the tense situation,” it said.

“Some other countries also made positive efforts in this regard,” the ministry added.

China is willing to work with the international community to continue to encourage the neighbors to meet each other half way and use dialogue and peaceful means to resolve differences, it said, without elaborating.

China and Pakistan call each other “all-weather” friends, but China has also been trying to improve ties with New Delhi.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping held an informal summit in China last year agreeing to reset relations, and Xi is expected to visit India sometime this year, diplomatic sources say.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Simon Cameron-Moore)