After Bolton fireworks, Trump picks low-key Robert O’Brien for top job

By Steve Holland, Jonathan Landay and Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump picked U.S. hostage negotiator Robert O’Brien on Wednesday as his fourth White House national security adviser, turning to a low-key choice for the position after the boisterous tenure of John Bolton.

O’Brien’s selection was a sign of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s clout with the president, with U.S. officials saying Pompeo had made clear he would be happy with either O’Brien or another candidate, former deputy national security adviser Ricky Waddell.

“I have worked long & hard with Robert. He will do a great job!” Trump said in a tweet.

Aides said Trump had gotten to know O’Brien through his work as the U.S. envoy for hostage negotiations and admired his ability to get hostages returned from North Korea and Turkey.

The job most recently took him to Sweden in a bid to get the American rapper known professionally as A$AP Rocky out of jail on an assault charge.

A source close to the White House said Trump wanted to pick a new adviser who would be able to get along well with Pompeo after the secretary of state sometimes struggled with Bolton.

O’Brien, the source said, “is a low-profile, articulate negotiator who has a strong relationship with Pompeo.”

O’Brien follows in the footsteps of three other national security advisers: Michael Flynn and H.R. McMaster and, most recently, Bolton, who clashed with the president over a host of issues from Iran to Afghanistan to North Korea.

Bolton parted ways with Trump a little more than a week ago, his stormy ending coming shortly after he disagreed with the prospect of the president easing some sanctions on Iran, a person close to Bolton said.

Within the National Security Council, O’Brien’s critical task will be to stabilize a sprawling foreign policy apparatus where morale has taken a major hit since Trump took office, according to an NSC insider.

Trump’s abrupt firing of Bolton added to a sense of unease among NSC staff. A key question is whether O’Brien will reinstate the inter-agency coordinating role for which the NSC was originally conceived but which was largely put on ice during Bolton’s tenure, the source said.

For Trump, O’Brien represents a low-key choice for the job, a sign that the president was happy to have someone without the television starpower of Bolton.

O’Brien is an attorney from Los Angeles who served as a foreign policy adviser to 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and 2016 candidate Scott Walker. He has handled a number of high-profile legal cases and previously served in several State Department positions, including as an alternative representative to the U.N. General Assembly in 2005.

O’Brien has been a fan of the recently departed Bolton after the two worked together when Bolton was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 2005 during George W. Bush’s presidency.

In a December 2016 column for radio host Hugh Hewitt’s website, O’Brien called Bolton “a formidable diplomat and a patriot” in recommending the newly elected Trump pick Bolton for a high-profile assignment.

“John’s job as our man at the UN was never easy, often exhausting and painfully slow at points. But John, the definition of a diplomat, never grew physically tired or ever lost his temper with other diplomats or the mission’s staff,” O’Brien wrote.

Trump in March had complimented O’Brien for doing a “fantastic job” after gaining the release of American hostage Danny Burch in Yemen.

People close to the White House said Trump was looking for someone who would manage the national security process, voice opinions behind the scenes but not go public with differences.

One of the most prominent hostage cases O’Brien has worked on is that of Austin Tice, a freelance journalist believed by the U.S. government to be alive who was abducted in Syria in August 2012 while reporting on the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.

Tice’s parents, Marc and Debra Tice, praised what they described as O’Brien’s quiet, dogged efforts to win their son’s release.

“He’s kept us informed and been regularly in touch,” Marc Tice told Reuters in a telephone interview from his Houston home. “With Robert in this new role, Austin’s return can happen even sooner.”

(Reporting by Steve Holland, Jonathan Landay and Matt Spetalnick; Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton, Makini Brice and Susan Heavey; Editing by Bernadette Baum, Lisa Shumaker and Tom Brown)

Iran says U.S. should avoid ‘warmongers’ after Bolton departure

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during the cabinet meeting in Tehran, Iran, September 11, 2019. Official President website/Handout via REUTERS

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran said on Wednesday Washington should distance itself from “warmongers” after the resignation of hawkish White House National Security Adviser John Bolton, and Tehran stood by its demand that sanctions be lifted before any talks.

The departure of Bolton removes one of the strongest advocates of a hard line towards Iran from President Donald Trump’s White House and raises the prospect of steps to open up negotiations after more than a year of escalating tension.

“America should understand that … it should distance itself from warmongers,” Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency quoted President Hassan Rouhani as saying on Wednesday, without mentioning Bolton.

“Iran’s policy of resistance will not change as long as our enemy (the United States) continues to put pressure on Iran,” said Rouhani, a pragmatist who won two landslide elections in Iran on promises to open it up to the world.

Last year, the United States pulled out of an international accord between Iran and world powers under which Tehran accepted curbs on its nuclear program in return for access to world trade.

Washington says the agreement reached by Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama was too weak because many of its terms expire in a decade and it does not cover non-nuclear issues such as Iran’s missile program and regional behavior.

The White House has followed what the administration calls a policy of “maximum pressure”, including sanctions aimed at halting all Iranian oil exports, saying its ultimate aim is to push Tehran to the table for talks on a new, tougher deal.

Immediately after Bolton’s departure, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Tuesday that Trump could meet with Rouhani at an upcoming U.N, meeting with “no preconditions”.

“SIGH OF RELIEF”

Iran has rejected talks unless sanctions are lifted first. It said on Wednesday that Bolton’s exit had not changed that position.

“The departure of … Bolton from President Donald Trump’s administration will not push Iran to reconsider talking with the U.S.,” Iran’s U.N. envoy, Majid Takhteravanchi, was quoted as saying by state news agency IRNA.

Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif slammed the United States for ordering new sanctions on Iran despite Bolton’s departure.

“As the world … was breathing a sigh of relief over the ouster of #B_Team’s henchman in the White House, (Washington) declared further escalation of #EconomicTerrorism (sanctions) against Iran,” Zarif tweeted. “Thirst for war —maximum pressure— should go with the warmonger-in-chief (Bolton).”

Zarif has often said that a so-called “B-team” including Bolton could goad Trump into conflict with Tehran.

The United States on Tuesday announced sanctions on a “wide range of terrorists and their supporters”, including Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

Iran says it hopes to save the deal but cannot do so indefinitely if it gets none of its economic benefits. It has responded to U.S. sanctions with steps to reduce its compliance with the accord and has said it could eventually leave it unless other parties shield its economy from penalties.

“Iran’s commitments to the nuclear deal are proportional to other parties and we will take further steps if necessary,” Rouhani said.

Iran started using advanced centrifuges last week to ramp up output of enriched uranium and reduced its commitments to the nuclear deal, but said it was giving European countries another two months to come up with a plan to protect its economy.

France has proposed giving Iran a multi-billion dollar credit line which would shield it from some impact of U.S. sanctions, although any such deal would require the Trump administration’s tacit approval.

(This story was refiled to correct spelling of ‘weak’ in paragraph 6)

(Additional Reporting by Tuqa Khalid; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Peter Graff/William Maclean)

U.S. top security adviser says threat from Iran is not over

FILE PHOTO: U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton speaks during a graduation ceremony at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, U.S., May 22, 2019. REUTERS/Michelle McLoughlin

LONDON (Reuters) – The threat from Iran is not over but quick action from the United States has helped deter it, White House National Security Adviser John Bolton said on Thursday.

The U.S. military has sent forces, including an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers, to the Middle East in a move that U.S. officials said was made to counter “clear indications” of threats from Iran to American forces in the region.

“I don’t think this threat is over, but I do think you can make at least a conditional claim that the quick response and the deployment and other steps that we took did serve as a deterrent,” Bolton told reporters during a visit to London.

Asked whether he was at odds with President Donald Trump, who said earlier this week that the U.S. was not looking for regime change in Iran, he said: “The policy we’re pursuing is not a policy of regime change. That’s the fact and everybody should understand it that way.”

Bolton said there was some prospect that evidence Iran was behind attacks this month on oil tankers in the Gulf would be presented to the United Nations Security Council next week.

“I don’t think anybody who is familiar with the situation in the region, whether they have examined the evidence or not, has come to any conclusion other than that these attacks were carried out by Iran or their surrogates,” he said.

(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge and William James, Writing by Kylie MacLellan; Editing by Alistair Smout)

U.S. deploying carrier, bombers to Middle East to deter Iran: Bolton

The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) transits the Strait of Gibraltar, entering the Mediterranean Sea as it continues operations in the 6th Fleet area of responsibility in this April 13, 2019 photo supplied by the U.S. Navy. U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Clint Davis/Handout via REUTERS

By Matt Spetalnick and Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration is deploying a carrier strike group and bombers to the Middle East in response to troubling “indications and warnings” from Iran and to show the United States will retaliate with “unrelenting force” to any attack, national security adviser John Bolton said on Sunday.

With tensions already high between Washington and Tehran, a U.S. official said the deployment has been ordered “as a deterrence to what has been seen as potential preparations by Iranian forces and its proxies that may indicate possible attacks on U.S. forces in the region.”However, the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States was not expecting any imminent Iranian attack.

Bolton – who has spearheaded an increasingly hawkish U.S. policy on Iran – said the decision, which could exacerbate problems between the two countries, was meant to send a “clear and unmistakable message” of U.S. resolve to Tehran.

Though he cited no specific Iranian activities that have raised new concerns, Iran has recently warned it would block the Strait of Hormuz if it was barred from using the strategic waterway. About a fifth of the oil consumed globally passes through the strait.

“The United States is not seeking war with the Iranian regime, but we are fully prepared to respond to any attack, whether by proxy, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or regular Iranian forces,” Bolton said in a statement.

It marked the latest in a series of moves by President Donald Trump’s administration aimed at ratcheting up pressure on Iran in recent months.

Washington has said it will stop waivers for countries buying Iranian oil, in an attempt to reduce Iran’s oil exports to zero. It has also blacklisted Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps, taking the unprecedented step of designating it as a foreign terrorist organization, which Iran has cast as an American provocation.

The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) breaks away from the fast combat support ship USNS Arctic (T-AOE 8) after an underway replenishment-at-sea in the Mediterranean Sea in this April 29, 2019 photo supplied by the U.S. Navy. U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Garrett LaBarge/Handout via REUTERS

The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) breaks away from the fast combat support ship USNS Arctic (T-AOE 8) after an underway replenishment-at-sea in the Mediterranean Sea in this April 29, 2019 photo supplied by the U.S. Navy. U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Garrett LaBarge/Handout via REUTERS

‘UNRELENTING FORCE’

The Trump administration’s efforts to impose political and economic isolation on Tehran began last year when it unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear deal it and other world powers negotiated with Iran in 2015.

“The United States is deploying the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and a bomber task force to the U.S. Central Command region to send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force,” Bolton said.

Bolton did not provide any further details.

A U.S. Navy statement issued early last month said the aircraft carrier and its accompanying convoy of ships had steamed out of Norfolk, Virginia, on April 1 “for a regularly scheduled deployment”, but it did not give any destination at the time.

While it is not rare for the United States to have aircraft carriers in the Middle East, Bolton’s language could increase tensions.

The threat late last month from the IRGC to close the Strait of Hormuz followed a U.S. announcement that it would end exemptions granted last year to eight buyers of Iranian oil and demanding they stop purchases by May 1 or face sanctions.

European governments have opposed Washington’s reinstatement of sanctions on Iran.

A senior Trump administration official said at the time that any aggressive move by Iran in the strait would be unjustified and unacceptable.

Iran has made threats to block the waterway in the past, without acting on them.

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Idrees Ali; Editing by Peter Cooney & Simon Cameron-Moore)

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)

White House invites Putin to Washington

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin shake hands as they meet in Helsinki, Finland July 16, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Margarita Antidze

TBILISI (Reuters) – The White House has formally invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to Washington, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton said on Friday, returning to an idea that was put on hold in July amid anger in the U.S. over the prospect of such a summit.

President Donald Trump held a summit with Putin in Helsinki, the Finnish capital, and then issued Putin an invitation to visit Washington in the autumn. But that was postponed after Trump faced allegations of cozying up to the Kremlin.

“We have invited President Putin to Washington,” Bolton said at a news conference during a visit to ex-Soviet Georgia, days after meeting Putin and senior security officials in Moscow.

Bolton said he gave Putin an invitation to visit next year during his trip to Moscow, U.S. broadcaster RFE/RL reported.

It was not immediately clear if Putin had accepted the invitation. Putin last held a meeting with a U.S. president on American soil in 2015 when he met Barack Obama on the sidelines of a U.N. General Assembly.

Trump’s earlier invitation to Putin sparked an outcry in Washington, including from lawmakers in Trump’s Republican party, who argued that Putin was an adversary not worthy of a White House visit.

The topic of Putin visiting the United States is a highly-charged one, because U.S. intelligence agencies allege that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election to help Trump win. Russia denies any election meddling.

Trump has said it is in U.S. interests to establish a solid working relationship with Putin.

Trump and Putin plan to hold a bilateral meeting in Paris on Nov. 11 on the sidelines of events to commemorate the centenary of the end of World War One.

Bolton said that the Paris meeting would be brief.

(Reporting by Margarita Antidze, Writing by Tom Balmforth, Editing by Robin Pomeroy, William Maclean)