France tells Iran to stop ballistic missile work designed for nuclear weapons

FILE PHOTO: A boy holding a placard with pictures of (L-R) President Hassan Rouhani, the late founder of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, poses for camera in front of a model of Simorgh satellite-carrier rocket during a ceremony marking the 37th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, in Tehran February 11, 2016. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi/TIMA/File Photo

PARIS (Reuters) – France on Friday called on Iran to immediately stop all activities linked to ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear weapons after Tehran said it could put two satellites into orbit in the coming weeks.

“France recalls that the Iranian missile program (does) not conform with U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231,” Foreign ministry spokeswoman Agnes von der Muhll told reporters in a daily briefing.

“It calls on Iran to immediately cease all ballistic missile-related activities designed to carry nuclear weapons, including tests using ballistic missile technology.”

Von der Muhll was responding to comments by President Hassan Rouhani on Thursday, who said two satellites would be sent into space using Iran-made missiles.

Tehran responded by telling France to avoid repeating “irresponsible and incorrect” claims about Tehran’s missile work that were made by countries that were against a 2015 deal reached between Iran and six major powers, Iranian state TV reported on Friday.

“Iran’s home-grown defensive missile program is the Iranian nation’s natural right,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi was quoted as saying by TV.

“Iran’s missile program is not in violation of U.N. resolution of 2231.”

(Reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Dubai and John Irish in Paris editing by William Maclean)

Exclusive: Iran moves missiles to Iraq in warning to enemies

FILE PHOTO: A display featuring missiles and a portrait of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is seen at Baharestan Square in Tehran, Iran September 27, 2017. Nazanin Tabatabaee Yazdi/TIMA via REUTERS

By John Irish and Ahmed Rasheed

PARIS/BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iran has given ballistic missiles to Shi’ite proxies in Iraq and is developing the capacity to build more there to deter attacks on its interests in the Middle East and to give it the means to hit regional foes, Iranian, Iraqi and Western sources said.

Any sign that Iran is preparing a more aggressive missile policy in Iraq will exacerbate tensions between Tehran and Washington, already heightened by U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of a 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

It would also embarrass France, Germany and the United Kingdom, the three European signatories to the nuclear deal, as they have been trying to salvage the agreement despite new U.S. sanctions against Tehran.

According to three Iranian officials, two Iraqi intelligence sources and two Western intelligence sources, Iran has transferred short-range ballistic missiles to allies in Iraq over the last few months. Five of the officials said it was helping those groups to start making their own.

“The logic was to have a backup plan if Iran was attacked,” one senior Iranian official told Reuters. “The number of missiles is not high, just a couple of dozen, but it can be increased if necessary.”

Iran has previously said its ballistic missile activities are purely defensive in nature. Iranian officials declined to comment when asked about the latest moves.

The Iraqi government and military both declined to comment.

The Zelzal, Fateh-110 and Zolfaqar missiles in question have ranges of about 200 km to 700 km, putting Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh or the Israeli city of Tel Aviv within striking distance if the weapons were deployed in southern or western Iraq.

The Quds Force, the overseas arm of Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), has bases in both those areas. Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani is overseeing the program, three of the sources said.

Western countries have already accused Iran of transferring missiles and technology to Syria and other allies of Tehran, such as Houthi rebels in Yemen and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

Iran’s Sunni Muslim Gulf neighbors and its arch-enemy Israel have expressed concerns about Tehran’s regional activities, seeing it as a threat to their security.

Israeli officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the missile transfers.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday that anybody that threatened to wipe Israel out “would put themselves in a similar danger”.

MISSILE PRODUCTION LINE

The Western source said the number of missiles was in the 10s and that the transfers were designed to send a warning to the United States and Israel, especially after air raids on Iranian troops in Syria. The United States has a significant military presence in Iraq.

“It seems Iran has been turning Iraq into its forward missile base,” the Western source said.

The Iranian sources and one Iraqi intelligence source said a decision was made some 18 months ago to use militias to produce missiles in Iraq, but activity had ramped up in the last few months, including with the arrival of missile launchers.

“We have bases like that in many places and Iraq is one of them. If America attacks us, our friends will attack America’s interests and its allies in the region,” said a senior IRGC commander who served during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

The Western source and the Iraqi source said the factories being used to develop missiles in Iraq were in al-Zafaraniya, east of Baghdad, and Jurf al-Sakhar, north of Kerbala. One Iranian source said there was also a factory in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The areas are controlled by Shi’ite militias, including Kata’ib Hezbollah, one of the closest to Iran. Three sources said Iraqis had been trained in Iran as missile operators.

The Iraqi intelligence source said the al-Zafaraniya factory produced warheads and the ceramic of missile molds under former President Saddam Hussein. It was reactivated by local Shi’ite groups in 2016 with Iranian assistance, the source said.

A team of Shi’ite engineers who used to work at the facility under Saddam were brought in, after being screened, to make it operational, the source said. He also said missiles had been tested near Jurf al-Sakhar.

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon declined to comment.

One U.S official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that Tehran over the last few months has transferred missiles to groups in Iraq but could not confirm that those missiles had any launch capability from their current positions.

Washington has been pushing its allies to adopt a tough anti-Iran policy since it reimposed sanctions this month.

While the European signatories to the nuclear deal have so far balked at U.S. pressure, they have grown increasingly impatient over Iran’s ballistic missile program.

France, in particular, has bemoaned Iranian “frenzy” in developing and propagating missiles and wants Tehran to open negotiations over its ballistic weapons.

Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Thursday that Iran was arming regional allies with rockets and allowing ballistic proliferation. “Iran needs to avoid the temptation to be the (regional) hegemon,” he said.

In March, the three nations proposed fresh EU sanctions on Iran over its missile activity, although they failed to push them through after opposition from some member states.

“Such a proliferation of Iranian missile capabilities throughout the region is an additional and serious source of concern,” a document from the three European countries said at the time.

MESSAGE TO FOES

A regional intelligence source also said Iran was storing a number of ballistic missiles in areas of Iraq that were under effective Shi’ite control and had the capacity to launch them.

The source could not confirm that Iran has a missile production capacity in Iraq.

A second Iraqi intelligence official said Baghdad had been aware of the flow of Iranian missiles to Shi’ite militias to help fight Islamic State militants, but that shipments had continued after the hardline Sunni militant group was defeated.

“It was clear to Iraqi intelligence that such a missile arsenal sent by Iran was not meant to fight Daesh (Islamic State) militants but as a pressure card Iran can use once involved in regional conflict,” the official said.

The Iraqi source said it was difficult for the Iraqi government to stop or persuade the groups to go against Tehran.

“We can’t restrain militias from firing Iranian rockets because simply the firing button is not in our hands, it’s with Iranians who control the push button,” he said.

“Iran will definitely use the missiles it handed over to Iraqi militia it supports to send a strong message to its foes in the region and the United States that it has the ability to use Iraqi territories as a launch pad for its missiles to strike anywhere and anytime it decides,” the Iraqi official said.

Iraq’s parliament passed a law in 2016 to bring an assortment of Shi’ite militia groups known collectively as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) into the state apparatus. The militias report to Iraq’s prime minister, who is a Shi’ite under the country’s unofficial governance system.

However, Iran still has a clear hand in coordinating the PMF leadership, which frequently meets and consults with Soleimani.

(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart and Jonathan Landay in Washington; editing by David Clarke)

North Korea newspaper blasts ‘double-dealing’ U.S. after Pompeo’s trip canceled

People and soldiers gather to offer flowers to the statues of state founder Kim Il Sung and former leader Kim Jong Il on the Day of Songun at Mansu hill, Pyongyang, North Korea, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on August 26, 2018. KCNA via REUTERS

(Reuters) – North Korea’s state-controlled newspaper on Sunday accused the United States of “double-dealing” and “hatching a criminal plot” against Pyongyang, after Washington abruptly canceled a visit by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Negotiations have been all but deadlocked since U.S. President Donald Trump’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore in June.

Pompeo has pressed for tangible steps toward North Korea’s abandonment of its nuclear arsenal while Pyongyang is demanding that Washington first make concessions of its own.

North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper said U.S. special units based in Japan were staging an air drill aimed at “the infiltration into Pyongyang”, citing a South Korean media outlet.

“Such acts prove that the U.S. is hatching a criminal plot to unleash a war against the DPRK and commit a crime which deserves merciless divine punishment in case the U.S. fails in the scenario of the DPRK’s unjust and brigandish denuclearisation first,” the paper said.

“We cannot but take a serious note of the double-dealing attitudes of the U.S. as it is busy staging secret drills involving man-killing special units while having a dialogue with a smile on its face,” it noted.

A spokesman at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul said he had no information on the drill alleged in the newspaper. The U.S. military spokesman in South Korea was not immediately available to comment.

The editorial, which did not mention the Pompeo visit, urged Washington to give up the “pointless military gamble” and implement the Singapore agreement, in which the leaders pledged to work towards a complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Since the summit, the two sides have struggled to narrow differences over the North’s nuclear weapons program.

Pyongyang is calling for a declaration of peace as part of security guarantees designed to encourage it to abandon its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, while the Trump administration says a peace deal and other concessions will only come after more progress on denuclearization.

In part to reassure North Korea, Trump canceled or delayed joint military drills with South Korea, but smaller exercises continue.

Trump partly blamed China for the lack of progress with North Korea and suggested that talks with Pyongyang could be on hold until after Washington resolved its bitter trade dispute with Beijing. China expressed “serious concern” about Trump’s comments, which it called “irresponsible”.

(Reporting by Hayoung Choi, Josh Smith; Editing by Alison Williams)

U.S. identifies North Korea missile test site it says Kim committed to destroy

FILE PHOTO: A North Korean long-range rocket is launched into the air at the Sohae rocket launch site, North Korea, in this photo released by Kyodo February 7, 2016. Mandatory credit REUTERS/Kyodo

By Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The missile engine test site that President Donald Trump said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had committed to destroy is a major facility in the western part of the country that has been used for testing engines for long-range missiles, according to a U.S. official.

Trump told reporters after their June 12 summit that Kim had pledged to dismantle one of his missile installations, which would be North Korea’s most concrete concession at the landmark meeting in Singapore.

However, the president at the time did not name the site.

A U.S. official identified it on Wednesday as the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground, saying North Korea “has used this site to test liquid-propellant engines for its long-range ballistic missiles.”

Pyongyang has said its missiles can reach the United States.

“Chairman Kim promised that North Korea would destroy a missile engine test stand soon,” the official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

There was no immediate word on the exact timetable, and North Korea has not publicly confirmed that Kim made such a commitment.

CBS News was the first to identify the site, which is the newest of North Korea’s known major missile testing facilities.

Although Trump has hailed the Singapore summit as a success, skeptics have questioned whether he achieved anything, given that Pyongyang, which has rejected unilateral nuclear disarmament, appeared to make no new tangible commitments in a joint written declaration.

The U.S.-based North Korea monitoring group 38 North said in an analysis at the end of last week there had been no sign of any activity toward dismantling Sohae or any other missile test site.

The U.S. official said: “The United States will continue to monitor this site closely as we move forward in our negotiations.”

LITTLE-KNOWN SITE

What little is known about the Sohae site, located in Tongchang-ri, has been pieced together from analysts’ assessments and the North Korean state news agency KCNA.

It was reported to have been established in 2008 and has research facilities nearby for missile development as well as a tower that can support ballistic missiles. The site is mainly used to test large Paektusan engines built for long-range missiles such as the Hwasong-15.

North Korea has spent considerable effort and resources to develop the site as a “civilian space program” facility, denying that it has a military application, said Jenny Town, a research analyst at the 38 North.

“Presumably, if North Korea does destroy the Sohae facility, they are also signaling that they are willing to stop satellite/rocket launches this time around as well, a point that has derailed negotiations in the past and is a significant new development,” she said.

North Korea has other missile testing facilities but the shutdown, if it happens, would be significant, analysts said.

“The missile testing is not just done in Tongchang-ri so it does not necessarily mean all ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) will be disabled. But the most well-known one is this, so there is a great symbolic meaning if this is shut down,” said Moon Hong-sik, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Strategy in South Korea.

North Korea announced ahead of the Singapore summit the suspension of its ICBM testing and also closed its nuclear bomb test site. U.S. officials, however, have cautioned that such actions are reversible.

Asked on Wednesday whether North Korea has done anything toward denuclearization since the summit, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters: “No, I’m not aware of that. I mean, obviously, it’s the very front end of a process. The detailed negotiations have not begun. I wouldn’t expect that at this point.”

Yang Uk, senior research fellow at the Korea Defence and Security Forum, agreed that a shutdown of the Sohae testing site would be a symbolic gesture rather than a move to technically disable its missile capabilities.

“Sohae has technically been used as an ‘engine’ testing site. North Korea has already finished developing (the) Baekdu Engine, so there would be no problem running ICBM missile programs even if they close down the Sohae site,” Yang said.

The move will only be significant if North Korea takes more than cosmetic steps to fully shutter the site, not just the test stand, said Melissa Hanham, a senior research associate at the James martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

“It’s only a good deal if they dismantle all the facilities at Sohae and re-employ the scientists in something civilian,” she said.

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Additional reporting by Idrees Ali in WASHINGTON and Christine Kim, Josh Smith, and Jeongmin Kim in SEOUL; Editing by Lisa Schumaker and Darren Schuettler)

Merkel defends nuclear deal, Iran says won’t ‘surrender’ to U.S.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks during the 2018 budget debate at the lower house of parliament Bundestag in Berlin, Germany, May 16, 2018. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

By Bozorgmehr Sharafedin

LONDON (Reuters) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel pushed back on Wednesday against Washington’s rejection of the Iran nuclear deal, saying the accord helped outside powers worried about Tehran’s regional role to pursue their concerns with the Islamic Republic.

Iran reiterated it would not surrender to U.S. pressure and would resist U.S. “plots”, following President Donald Trump’s abandonment of the 2015 agreement last week.

Repudiating the result of more than a decade of diplomacy, Trump complained that the deal does not cover Iran’s ballistic missiles, its role in regional wars or what happens after the pact begins to expire in 2025.

Major European countries share Trump’s concerns but argue that the nuclear deal is the best way to stop the increasingly influential regional power from obtaining an atomic weapon.

Merkel reasserted a defense of the deal in remarks to lawmakers in the Bundestag lower house of parliament.

“The question is whether you can talk better if you terminate an agreement or if you stay in it … we say you can talk better if you remain in it,” she said.

“This agreement is everything other than ideal, but Iran is, according to all the knowledge of the international nuclear authorities, sticking to the commitments of the agreement.”

The deal between Iran and six world powers lifted most international sanctions in 2016 in return for Tehran curbing its nuclear program, under strict surveillance by the U.N. nuclear watchdog.

Trump last week announced he planned to reimpose an array of sanctions lifted by the accord, and the U.S. Treasury on Tuesday imposed sanctions on Iran’s central bank governor, three other individuals and an Iraq-based bank.

Iran meanwhile said the new U.S. sanctions were an attempt to derail efforts to save the deal.

“With such destructive measures, the American government is trying to influence the will and decision of the remaining signatories of the JCPOA (nuclear agreement),” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi was quoted as saying by Fars news agency.

Iran has described the sanctions as illegal and has warned that if talks to rescue the accord fail, it would ramp up its nuclear program to a level more advanced than before.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Trump expected Tehran to leave the deal after the U.S. withdrawal, but Tehran had refused to follow that plan by trying to save the deal with its remaining signatories.

“Trump played his first card, but miscalculated the second move,” Rouhani was quoted as saying by the ISNA agency.

GUARANTEES

He also said Iran would not surrender to U.S. pressures.

“They think they can make the Iranian nation surrender by putting pressures on Iran, by sanctions and even threats of war… The Iranian nation will resist against the U.S. plots,” Rouhani was quoted as saying by ISNA news agency.

However the top advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said he doubted Tehran’s talks with European nations to save the deal would be successful.

“I doubt that the talks with the Europeans will be fruitful. I hope we see good results, but …. we should become self-sufficient,” Ali Akbar Velayati said, Fars news agency reported.

European powers this week vowed to shore up the deal by trying to keep Iran’s oil and investment flowing, but admitted they would struggle to provide the guarantees Tehran seeks.

British, French and German foreign ministers met in Brussels on Tuesday to see how they can save the nuclear deal without the United States, but appeared hard-pressed over how their companies could continue doing business with Iran once Washington begins to reimpose sanctions.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said his meeting with European Union officials in Brussels had been a good start, but he wanted to see guarantees materialize.

The Europeans and Iranians have tasked experts to come up with measures quickly and will meet again in Vienna next week.

Reuters reported on Wednesday that a senior Iranian official has met Chinese oil buyers this week to ask them to maintain imports after U.S. sanctions kick in.

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafed, additional reporting by Michelle Martin in Berlin, Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky, William Maclean)

Trump to reveal Iran decision, Europeans doubt he will stick with nuclear deal

U.S. President Donald Trump arrives for the launch of first lady Melania Trump's "Be Best" initiative in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, U.S., May 7, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump will announce on Tuesday whether he will pull out of the Iran nuclear deal or stay in and work with European allies who have struggled to persuade him that it has halted Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Trump has consistently threatened to pull out of the 2015 agreement because it does not address Iran’s ballistic missile program or its role in wars in Syria and Yemen, and does not permanently prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons.

European leaders have warned that a U.S. withdrawal would undo years of work that led to and sustained a landmark deal that has kept nuclear weapons out of Iran’s hands

But a senior French official doubted Trump had taken heed of European concerns.

“I think in Washington it was quite clear the president was convinced that Trump was heading to a negative decision so we have been preparing more aggressively the hypotheses of a partial or total pullout”, the official said.

Two other European officials also said they expected Trump to pull out of the accord.

Such a move could ratchet up tensions in a region riven with interrelated wars, including the multi-layered conflict in Syria where Iran’s presence has brought it into conflict with Israel.

Reflecting those strains, Iran’s Armed Forces Chief Major General Mohammad Bagheri said Iran’s military power would defuse any threat to Tehran, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Iran of deploying “very dangerous weapons” in Syria to threaten Israel.

A decision to quit the deal could also rattle oil markets due to Iran’s role as a major exporter, and critics say it could also harm Trump’s efforts to reach a deal in nuclear talks with North Korea, a prospect he has dismissed.

“This deal … is a factor of peace and stabilization in a very eruptive region,” French Defense Minister Florence Parly told RTL radio.

Trump, in a tweet on Monday, said he would make the announcement at 2 p.m. (1800 GMT) on Tuesday.

Iran suggested its economy would not be hurt whatever happened, but its rial was near record lows against the dollar in the free market as Iranians tried to buy hard currency, fearing financial turmoil if Trump quits the deal.

“We are prepared for all scenarios. If America pulls out of the deal, our economy will not be impacted,” central bank chief Valiollah Seif said on state television.

‘STAND ON OUR OWN FEET’

“One man in one country might create some problems for us for a few months, but we will overcome those problems,” President Hassan Rouhani said. “If we are under sanctions or not, we should stand on our own feet.”

It would be a severe mistake for Iran to stay in the nuclear deal if the United States leaves it, said senior hardline official Mohammad Javad Larijani, head of the Iranian Judiciary’s Human Rights Council, Tasnim news agency reported.

Even before the latest standoff, a raft of business deals including plane purchases have been delayed amid bankers’ concerns that the nuclear deal could unravel or that they could fall foul of U.S. financial controls.

Whatever Trump’s decision, those concerns are unlikely to ease any time soon as the fallout from weeks of uncertainty and the appointment of a more hawkish U.S. foreign policy team expose underlying obstacles, bankers said.

The deal, negotiated during the administration of Trump’s Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, eased economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for Tehran limiting its nuclear program.

Trump has called it the “worst deal ever negotiated” and he wants Britain, France and Germany – which also signed the pact along with Russia and China – to toughen up the terms.

Under the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the United States committed to ease a series of U.S. sanctions on Iran and it has done so under “waivers” that effectively suspend them.

 

WAIVERS

International Atomic Energy Agency chief Yukiya Amano has said in Iran his agency had the world’s most robust nuclear verification regime. If the deal failed it would be “a great loss”.

Trump has until Saturday to decide whether to extend the waivers or withdraw and reintroduce sanctions related to Iran’s central bank and Iranian oil exports.

That would dissuade foreign companies from doing business with Iran because they could be subject to U.S. penalties.

Rouhani suggested on Monday that Iran might remain in the nuclear deal even if Trump abandons it and imposes sanctions. But he also warned that Tehran would fiercely resist U.S. efforts to limit its influence in the Middle East.

The Kremlin said on Tuesday a U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal would have harmful consequences.

Israel is widely believed to be the only nuclear-armed state in the Middle East, although it neither confirms nor denies possessing atomic weapons.

Financial markets are watching Trump’s decision closely. On Tuesday, oil retreated from 3-1/2 year highs as investors waited for Trump’s statement.

(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington, Sybille de La Hamaide, John Irish and Tim Hepher in Paris, Parisa Hafezi in Ankara, Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London, Andrew Torchia in Dubai, Writing by William Maclean, Editing by Janet Lawrence)

China installs cruise missiles on South China Sea outposts: CNBC

FILE PHOTO: Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Fiery Cross Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in this still image from video taken by a P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft provided by the United States Navy May 21, 2015. U.S. Navy/Handout via Reuters/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – China has installed anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missile systems on three of its outposts in the South China Sea, U.S. news network CNBC reported on Wednesday, citing sources with direct knowledge of U.S. intelligence reports.

The installations, if confirmed, would mark the first Chinese missile deployments in the Spratly Islands, where several Asian countries including Vietnam and Taiwan have rival claims.

China has made no mention of any missile deployments but says its military facilities in the Spratlys are purely defensive, and that it can do what it likes on its own territory.

China’s Defense Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the latest report.

The foreign ministry said China has irrefutable sovereignty over the Spratly Islands and that its necessary defensive deployments were for national security needs and not aimed at any country.

“Those who do not intend to be aggressive have no need to be worried or scared,” ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters in Beijing.

China “hopes relevant parties can objectively and calmly view this”, she added.

CNBC quoted unnamed sources as saying that according to U.S. intelligence assessments, the missiles were moved to Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef and Mischief Reef within the past 30 days.

The U.S. Defense Department, which opposes China’s installation of military facilities on outposts it has built up in the South China Sea, declined comment. “We don’t comment on matters of intelligence,” a spokesman said.

Greg Poling, a South China Sea expert at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies think-tank, said deploying missiles on the outposts would be important.

“These would be the first missiles in the Spratlys, either surface to air, or anti-ship,” he said.

He added that such deployments were expected as China built missile shelters on the reefs last year and already deployed such missile systems on Woody Island further to the north.

Poling said it would be a major step on China’s road to dominating the South China Sea, a key global trade route.

“Before this, if you were one of the other claimants … you knew that China was monitoring your every move. Now you will know that you’re operating inside Chinese missile range. That’s a pretty strong, if implicit, threat,” he said.

CNBC said the YJ-12B anti-ship cruise missiles allowed China to strike vessels within 295 nautical miles. It said the HQ-9B long-range, surface-to-air missiles could target aircraft, drones and cruise missiles within 160 nautical miles.

Last month, U.S. Admiral Philip Davidson, nominated to head U.S. Pacific Command, said China’s “forward operating bases” in the South China Sea appeared complete.

“The only thing lacking are the deployed forces,” he said. Once these were added, “China will be able to extend its influence thousands of miles to the south and project power deep into Oceania”.

Davidson said China could use the bases to challenge the U.S. regional presence, and “would easily overwhelm the military forces of any other South China Sea-claimants.

“China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States,” he said.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Darren Schuettler)

Trump says launching ‘largest-ever’ package of sanctions against North Korea

U.S. President Donald Trump takes questions from to reporters before departing the White House to speak at CPAC in Washington, U.S., February 23, 2018. REUTERS/Jim Bour

By Christine Kim and Steve Holland

SEOUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Friday the United States would launch the “largest-ever” package of sanctions against North Korea, intensifying pressure on the reclusive country to giving up its nuclear and missile programs.

“Today I am announcing that we are launching the largest-ever set of new sanctions on the North Korean regime,” Trump said in excerpts of a speech he was to deliver on Friday.

He said the Treasury Department soon will be taking action to further cut off sources of revenue and fuel that North Korea uses to fund its nuclear program and sustain its military.”

He said the effort will target more than 50 “vessels, shipping companies and trade businesses that are assisting North Korea in evading sanctions.

North Korea’s missile and nuclear program, which is seeking to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of reaching the U.S. mainland, is the Trump administration’s biggest national security challenge. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have taunted each other through the media and Trump has threatened him with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

Tougher sanctions may jeopardize the latest detente between the two Koreas, illustrated by the North’s participation in the Winter Olympics in the South, amid preparations for talks about a possible summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence had hinted at such a sanctions package two weeks ago during a stop in Tokyo that preceded his visit to South Korea for the Pyeongchang Olympics.

North Korea last year conducted dozens of missile launches and its sixth and largest nuclear test in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions. It defends the weapons programs as essential to deter U.S. aggression.

It has been more than two months since North Korea’s last missile test.

Kim said he wants to boost the “warm climate of reconciliation and dialogue” with South Korea, which hosts 28,500 U.S. troops, after a high-level delegation, including his sister, returned from the Olympics.

In an extension of that rapprochement, the North agreed on Friday to hold working-level talks on Tuesday for the Pyeongchang Winter Paralympics on the North’s side of the border village of Panmunjom.

The new U.S. sanctions will be announced while Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, is visiting South Korea. She had dinner with Moon after a closed-door meeting with the president.

“We are very, very excited to attend the 2018 winter Olympic games to cheer for Team USA and to reaffirm our strong and enduring commitment with the people of the Republic of Korea,” Ivanka, a senior White House adviser who has a long been a close confidante of her father’s, said at Incheon airport.

Ivanka Trump’s visit to South Korea coincides with that of a sanctioned North Korean official, Kim Yong Chol, blamed for the deadly 2010 sinking of a South Korean navy ship that killed 46 sailors. His delegation will attend the closing ceremony and also meet Moon.

The South Korean president said South Korea cannot acknowledge North Korea as a nuclear state and talks with the North on denuclearization and improving inter-Korean relations must go hand in hand, Moon’s spokesman, Yoon Young-chan, said at a news conference.

He said close cooperation between the United States and South Korea is important for the talks.

“President Moon also said out of all countries, South Korea has the strongest will to say it cannot acknowledge North Korea as a nuclear state,” he said.

Moon made the comments to Ivanka.

The Blue House has said there are no official opportunities for U.S. and North Korean officials to meet.

“RIGHT PERSON”

Kim Yong Chol is the vice chairman of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee and was previously chief of the Reconnaissance General Bureau, a top North Korean military intelligence agency that South Korea blamed for the sinking of its navy corvette, the Cheonan. North Korea has denied any involvement.

Seoul said it approved the pending visit by Kim Yong Chol in the pursuit of peace and asked for public understanding in the face of opposition protests.

“Under current difficult circumstances, we have decided to focus on whether peace on the Korean peninsula and improvement in inter-Korean relations can be derived from dialogue with (the visiting North Korean officials), not on their past or who they are,” said Unification Ministry spokesman Baik Tae-hyun in a media briefing.

Kim Yong Chol currently heads the United Front Department, the North’s office responsible for handling inter-Korean affairs.

South Korea’s decision on Thursday to allow in Kim Yong Chol, currently sanctioned by the United States and South Korea, sparked protest from family members of the dead sailors and opposition parties.

Many have been angered at the North’s participation at the Games, which they say has been a reward for bad behavior with no quid pro quo from Pyongyang.

(Reporting by Christine Kim in SEOUL and Steve Holland in WASHINGTON; Editing by Nick Macfie and Bill Trott)

North Korea ‘months away’ from ability to hit U.S. with nuclear weapon: U.S. envoy

U.S. Ambassador Robert Wood (R) waits next to U.S. Army Captain Murzban Morris of the Departement of Defense Joint Staff before their address on North Korea to the Conference on Disarmament at the United Nations Office in Geneva, Switzerland August 30, 2017.

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – North Korea is only months away from obtaining the capability to hit U.S. territory with a nuclear weapon and must be disarmed, a U.S. envoy said on Tuesday, dismissing Pyonyang’s diplomatic thaw with South Korea as a “charm offensive” that fooled no one.

In a diplomatic showdown at a U.N.-sponsored Conference on Disarmament, North Korea responded by blaming Washington for escalating confrontation, saying it was deploying nuclear assets including aircraft carriers near the divided peninsula and was considering a pre-emptive strike against Pyongyang.

“North Korea has accelerated its provocative pursuit of nuclear weapons and missile capabilities, and expressed explicit threats to use nuclear weapons against the United States and its allies in the region,” U.S. disarmament ambassador Robert Wood told the Geneva forum.

“North Korean officials insist that they will not give up nuclear weapons, and North Korea may now be only months away from the capability to strike the United States with nuclear-armed ballistic missiles,” he said.

A new U.S. nuclear policy review outlined last week “reaffirms that North Korea’s illicit nuclear program must be completely, verifiably, and irreversibly eliminated, resulting in a Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons,” he said.

Asked later what the basis was for the assessment that North Korea would soon be able to hit the United States with a nuclear weapon, he said he had “no new information to share”.

North Korea tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile, the Hwasong-14, twice last July. In November it tested the Hwasong-15, believed to be capable of reaching the continental United States. It is not yet believed to have the capability to mount a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile.

North Korea is under tightening U.N. Security Council sanctions for its banned nuclear and ballistic missile programs. But recent weeks have seen a thaw with South Korea, after Pyongyang agreed to send athletes to compete in the Olympic Games opening on Feb. 9 in the south.

“CHARM OFFENSIVE”

“What I would call ‘the charm offensive’ frankly is fooling no one,” Wood told the talks.

He also said arsenals in China and Russia were expanding, drawing rebukes from their respective delegations.

“Russia, China and North Korea are growing their stockpiles, increasing the prominence of nuclear weapons in their security strategies, and – in some cases – pursuing the development of new nuclear capabilities to threaten other peaceful nations,” Wood said.

“We are not going to stick our head in the sand, we are going to respond to these growing challenges,” he later told reporters.

North Korea accused the United States of seeking to aggravate the situation on the divided peninsula by “deploying large nuclear assets” nearby, laying the ground for a possible pre-emptive strike against it.

“In view of the nature and scale of U.S. military reinforcements, they are designed to make a pre-emptive strike against the DPRK,” North Korean diplomat Ju Yong Chol told the talks, referring to his country’s official name the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“U.S. officials including the defense secretary and the CIA director repeatedly talked about DPRK nuclear and missile threat to justify their argument for a military option and a new concept of a so-called ‘bloody nose’, a limited pre-emptive strike on the DPRK is under consideration within the U.S. administration,” Ju said.

He said President Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ doctrine and U.S. nuclear superiority would endanger global peace and security and “trigger off a new nuclear arms race and could bring the whole world close to a horrible catastrophe”.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Peter Graff)

France, U.S. ‘determined’ to up pressure on Iran over ballistic weapons

France, U.S. 'determined' to up pressure on Iran over ballistic weapons

PARIS (Reuters) – France and the United States are determined to “vigorously” raise pressure on Iran over its ballistic missile program, including possibly through sanctions, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said during a visit to Washington.

Le Drian was in the American capital on Monday to meet U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster and U.S. President Donald Trump’s special adviser Jared Kushner.

Tensions between Iran and France have risen in recent months with both sides repeatedly trading barbs in public, including le Drian accusing Iran of “hegemonic temptations” in the region.

Iran on Sunday criticized President Emmanuel Macron over his tough stance toward Tehran and said Paris would soon lose its international credibility if it “blindly follows” U.S. President Donald Trump.

“They didn’t like the word, but I stand by it,” le Drian told reporters. “Iran’s hegemonic temptations in the region is a matter of urgency because it’s within the framework of getting peace in Iraq and Syria that we will stop this process.”

Iranian officials have been particularly aggrieved by France’s criticism of its ballistic missile tests and suggestions of possible new sanctions over the program, which Tehran calls solely defensive in nature.

Le Drian, who is due in Iran at the beginning of January, said he would tell them clearly of Paris’ concerns.

“We are fully determined to press very vigorously on Iran to stop the development of an increasingly significant ballistic capability”,” Le Drian said, reiterating that sanctions were possible.

Macron, unlike Trump, has reaffirmed his country’s commitment to the deal Iran signed in 2015 with world powers under which it curbed its disputed nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of most international sanctions.

After talks with the U.S. officials, Le Drian said he believed that Washington was beginning to understand European messages on the need to maintain the accord.

(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)