Iran says it arrests CIA spies, Gulf tensions simmer

FILE PHOTO - The Iranian flag flutters in front the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) headquarters in Vienna, Austria July 10, 2019. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner

By Michael Georgy

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran announced on Monday it had captured 17 spies working for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and sentenced some of them to death, deepening a crisis between the Islamic Republic and the West.

Iranian state television published images that it said showed the CIA officers who had been in touch with the suspected spies.

In a statement read on state television, the Ministry of Intelligence said 17 spies had been arrested in the 12 months to March 2019. Some have been sentenced to death, according to another report.

Such announcements are not unusual in Iran, and are often made for domestic consumption. But the timing suggests Tehran could harden its position in a standoff with Western powers which has raised fears of a direct military confrontation.

In recent weeks the United States has blamed Iran for attacks on shipping near the Strait of Hormuz, the global oil trade’s most important waterway, accusations Iran has denied.

The United States and Iran have downed drones operated by the other side and on Friday, Iran captured a British-registered tanker, the Stena Impero, in the Strait of Hormuz. Tehran had previously warned it would respond to Britain’s seizure of an Iranian tanker off Gibraltar on July 4.

There was no immediate comment on the Iranian allegations by the CIA or U.S. officials.

Iran announced in June that it had broken up an alleged CIA spy ring but it was unclear whether Monday’s announcement was linked to the same case.

BRITAIN’S NEXT MOVE

Prime Minister Theresa May’s office has said she would chair a meeting of Britain’s COBR emergency response committee early on Monday to discuss the tanker crisis and the government was expected to announce its next steps in parliament.

As Britain weighed its next move a recording emerged showing the Iranian military defied a British warship when it boarded and seized the Stena Impero, underscoring the challenges Britain faces responding.

Experts on the region say there are few obvious steps London can take at a time when the United States has already imposed the maximum possible economic sanctions, banning all Iranian oil exports worldwide.

Washington imposed the sanctions after President Donald Trump pulled out of a deal signed by his predecessor Barack Obama, which had provided Iran access to world trade in return for curbs on its nuclear program.

European countries including Britain have been caught in the middle. They disagreed with the U.S. decision to quit the nuclear deal but have so far failed to offer Iran another way to receive the deal’s promised economic benefits.

In Tokyo, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Monday that Japan wants to make every effort to reduce tension between the United States and Iran before responding to an expected U.S. request to send its navy to safeguard strategic waters off Iran.

Japanese media have said Washington’s proposal to boost surveillance of vital Middle East oil shipping lanes off Iran and Yemen could be on the agenda during a visit to Tokyo this week by U.S. national security adviser John Bolton.

“We have a long tradition of friendship with Iran and I’ve met with its president any number of times, as well as other leaders,” Abe told a news conference after his coalition’s victory in a Sunday election for parliament’s upper house.

“Before we make any decisions on what to do, Japan would like to make every effort to reduce tensions between Iran and the United States.”

The United States is struggling to win its allies’ support for an initiative to heighten surveillance of vital Middle East oil shipping lanes because of fears it will increase tension with Iran, six sources familiar with the matter said.

(Reporting by Gulf bureau and Elaine Lies and Linda Sieg in Tokyo; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Jon Boyle)

U.S. unsure about circumstances of tanker towed to Iran

FILE PHOTO: A British Royal Navy patrol vessel guards the oil supertanker Grace 1, that's on suspicion of carrying Iranian crude oil to Syria, as it sits anchored in waters of the British overseas territory of Gibraltar, historically claimed by Spain, July 4, 2019. REUTERS/Jon Nazca

DUBAI (Reuters) – U.S. officials say they are unsure whether an oil tanker towed into Iranian waters was seized by Iran or rescued after facing mechanical faults as Tehran asserts, creating a mystery at sea at a time of high tension in the Gulf.

The MT Riah disappeared from ship tracking maps when its transponder was switched off in the Strait of Hormuz on July 14. Its last position was off the coast of the Iranian island of Qeshm in the strait.

Iran says it towed a vessel into its waters from the strait after the ship issued a distress call. Although Tehran did not name the vessel, the Riah is the only ship whose recorded movements appear likely to match that description.

A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said it appeared that the tanker was in Iranian territorial waters, but it was not clear whether that was because Iran had seized it or rescued it.

The mystery comes at a time when Washington has called for greater security for ships in the Gulf.

Iran has threatened to retaliate for the British seizure of an Iranian oil tanker accused of violating sanctions on Syria. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has branded the British action “piracy”.

The United States has also blamed Iran for attacks on tankers in the Gulf since May, which Tehran denies.

Shipping experts say U.S. sanctions on Iran intended to halt its oil exports have led to a rise in unusual tanker movements away from shipping lanes, with Iran seeking covert ways to export its oil. Increasingly, ships are switching off location transponders, transferring oil at sea and concealing their routes. Iran has also become more dependent on a fleet of aging ships, and some have had to be towed for emergency repairs.

Adding to the riddle of the missing ship was difficulty establishing who owns it, which no country or company has so far publicly claimed. Initial reports described it as Emirati. However, an Emirati official told Reuters the tanker was neither owned nor operated by the UAE.

The tanker’s registered manager is Prime Tankers in the UAE. That company told Reuters it had sold the tanker to another UAE-based company, Mouj al-Bahar. An employee at Mouj al-Bahar told Reuters that the firm did not own it but had been managing the vessel up to two months ago, and that it was now under the management of a company called KRB Petrochem. Reuters could not reach KRB Petrochem for comment.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom, Parisa Hafezi, Ghaida Ghantous and Alex Cornwell; Writing by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Peter Graff)

Merchant ships urged to avoid using private armed teams in Mideast Gulf

FILE PHOTO: A British Royal Navy patrol vessel guards the oil supertanker Grace 1, that's on suspicion of carrying Iranian crude oil to Syria, as it sits anchored in waters of the British overseas territory of Gibraltar, historically claimed by Spain, July 4, 2019. REUTERS/Jon Nazca

By Jonathan Saul

LONDON (Reuters) – Shipping companies sailing through the Middle East Gulf are being urged to avoid having private armed security guards onboard as the risk of escalation in the region rises, industry associations say.

Relations between Iran and the West have become increasingly strained after Britain seized an Iranian tanker in Gibraltar last week and London said its warship HMS Montrose had to fend off Iranian vessels seeking to block a British-owned tanker from passing through the Strait of Hormuz.

The most recent incidents followed a spate of attacks on tankers since May around the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman, which the United States has blamed on Iran and are denied by Tehran.

An advisory issued in recent days by leading shipping associations warned against using private armed guards in the critical areas.

“The use of force against threats recently encountered in the Gulf of Oman carries significant risk and has the potential to escalate security situations to the detriment of the safety of ship and crew,” the advisory said.

“The use of unarmed maritime advisors to assist with onboard security and watch-keeping is sensible,” it said, noting relevant legal guidelines.

A rise in Somali piracy, which was at its height a decade ago, prompted shipping companies to deploy private armed security teams in the Gulf of Aden.

Guy Platten, secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping, said there were stringent restrictions on the use of armed guards in the Gulf, whereas there was approval by flag states for their deployment off Somalia.

“The message is do not use private armed guards in these waters – it is not advised,” he told Reuters on Friday.

While it is still possible for ships to sail through the Strait of Hormuz with private armed guards on board, few ports in the Gulf allow ships carrying weapons to enter.

“The legal implications for insurers and vessel owners are widespread. Breaches of rules bring about significant financial penalties, adverse reputational issues and in some cases custodial sentences,” said Jonathan Moss, head of transport and shipping with law firm DWF.

“The navies will be aware that additionally recruited armed security personnel may lead to the possible escalation of violence.”

Mark Gray, co-founder of British company MNG Maritime, which runs a UK regulated floating armoury some 26 nautical miles from the coast of the United Arab Emirates, said UK security companies that were licensed to carry and move firearms in the region were restricted to counter-piracy activity.

“Any British security company that uses those firearms … to counter the forces of a state like Iran would be in breach of that license and therefore breaking the law,” he said.

“Armed guards are not the solution – all you need are more eyes and ears looking at all sides of the ship especially the rear when passing through those waters.”

(Editing by Kirsten Donovan)

Britain says it fended off Iranian attempt to block its oil tanker

FILE PHOTO: A British Royal Navy patrol vessel guards the oil supertanker Grace 1, suspected of carrying Iranian crude oil to Syria, as it sits anchored in waters of the British overseas territory of Gibraltar, July 4, 2019. REUTERS/Jon Nazca/File Photo

By William Schomberg

LONDON (Reuters) – Three Iranian vessels tried to block a tanker passing through the Strait of Hormuz but backed off when confronted by a Royal Navy warship, the British government said on Thursday, raising the stakes in a test of nerves between Tehran and the West.

Britain urged Iran to “de-escalate the situation in the region” after the British Heritage oil tanker operated by BP was approached. The incident took place exactly a week after British Royal Marines seized an Iranian tanker, which London said was violating sanctions by bringing oil to Syria.

“HMS Montrose was forced to position herself between the Iranian vessels and British Heritage and issue verbal warnings to the Iranian vessels, which then turned away,” a British government spokesman said in a statement.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif dismissed as “worthless” the British allegation that Iran had sought to block the ship.

The incident followed President Donald Trump’s warning he would soon “substantially” increase U.S. sanctions on Iran as part of a drive to curb Iran’s nuclear program and force Tehran to change its regional behavior.

The United States blames Iran for a series of attacks on shipping in the world’s most important oil artery since mid-May, accusations Tehran rejects but which have raised fears the long-time foes could slip into direct military conflict.

They came as close as ever last month, when Iran shot down a U.S. drone and Trump ordered retaliatory air strikes, only to call them off minutes before impact.

“I’d expect the Iranians to continue to seek opportunities to harass and obstruct without sliding into war,” said Jon Alterman director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.

The United States quit an agreement last year between Iran and world powers to curb Iran’s nuclear program in return for granting it access to world trade. Washington sharply tightened sanctions against Iran since May with the aim of bringing its oil exports to zero. Iran responded by stepping up production of enriched uranium beyond limits in the nuclear deal.

Washington’s European allies disagreed with Trump’s decision to quit the nuclear pact and have tried to appear neutral. But Britain stepped into the crisis when it seized the Iranian tanker Grace 1 last week. Although EU states have not followed Washington in imposing sanctions on Iran, they have sanctions in place that forbid selling oil to Iran’s ally Syria.

A senior Iranian military commander on Thursday said Britain and the United States would regret detaining the vessel. Other Iranian officials have made similar statements, and some figures have been quoted as threatening to retaliate against British shipping.

KEY SHIPPING LANE

U.S. sanctions have effectively driven Iran from mainstream oil markets, depriving it of its main source of revenue and of the benefits it was meant to receive from its nuclear deal. Iran says it will return to full compliance with the agreement only if sanctions are lifted and Washington rejoins the pact.

BP CEO Bob Dudley, asked about the situation in the Gulf at an event at London’s Chatham House on Wednesday evening, said: “We’ve got to be super careful about our ships”.

An escalation in the Strait of Hormuz, the main outlet for Middle East oil traded around the globe, could drive up crude prices.

Maritime security sources said Britain was aiming to protect shipping lanes but there was no formal policy of escorting all UK ships through the area. The Montrose was there to ensure the safe passage of UK flagged ships when needed, they added.

Ship tracking information from data firm Refinitiv shows four other UK registered tankers now in the Gulf.

Bob Sanguinetti, chief executive with the UK Chamber of Shipping trade association, told Reuters the situation was tense and called for a de-escalation.

“UK shipowners are in regular contact with the relevant authorities and agencies regarding the security situation in the region, and we are confident that the RN (Royal Navy) will provide the necessary support to their vessels,” he said.

Oman, which hosts a joint British military base and shares the Strait of Hormuz with Iran, did not immediately comment. It has mediated between Tehran and the West and also allows the British and U.S. navies to use its ports on the Arabian Sea.

The United States is hoping to enlist allies in a military coalition to safeguard strategic waters off Iran and Yemen, Marine General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Tuesday.

Britain, France and Germany have sought to avoid being dragged into U.S. sanctions but say Iran must return to full compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal they were instrumental in brokering.

They have so far avoided triggering a dispute resolution process contained in the deal. Iran says it could take new steps in the next two months, including restarting dismantled centrifuges and purifying uranium to a sharply higher threshold, unless it is allowed to resume normal oil sales.

Francois Lecointre, the French armed forces chief, described the friction between the United States and Iran as a “clash of wills”.

“I think it is under control now… I don’t think it can spiral out of control but there can be escalation,” he told CNews television.

(Additional reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh in Geneva, Jonathan Saul in London, Sylvia Westall and Aziz El-Yaakoubi in Dubai; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Jon Boyle and Peter Graff)

Trump says won’t deal with UK ambassador after leak of ‘inept’ memos

Britain's ambassador to the United States Kim Darroch (C) listens as U.S. President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May hold a joint news conference at the White House in Washington, U.S., January 27, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Michael Holden and William James

LONDON (Reuters) – Donald Trump said he would not deal with Britain’s ambassador to Washington after a leak of confidential memos in which the diplomat described the U.S. president’s administration as “inept”.

Trump also attacked Britain’s outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May, who had said her government had full confidence in ambassador Kim Darroch, criticizing her handling of Brexit and saying she disregarded his advice.

“What a mess she and her representatives have created,” he wrote on Twitter. “I do not know the Ambassador, but he is not liked or well thought of within the U.S. We will no longer deal with him. The good news for the wonderful United Kingdom is that they will soon have a new Prime Minister.”

The spat between the two close allies followed the leak to a British newspaper on Sunday of memos from Darroch to London in which he said Trump’s administration was “dysfunctional” and “diplomatically clumsy and inept”.

May’s spokesman said while Darroch’s opinions did not reflect the view of the government or ministers, he said the diplomat had London’s backing and ambassadors needed to have the confidence to give their frank assessments.

“Contact has been made with the Trump administration, setting out our view that we believe the leak is unacceptable,” May’s spokesman told reporters. “It is, of course, a matter of regret that this has happened.”

May is also due to leave office before the end of the month and has previously clashed with Trump over a number of issues from Brexit to the Iran nuclear deal.

However, the timing of the discord comes as Britain is hoping to strike a major trade deal with its closest ally after it leaves the European Union, an exit scheduled for Oct. 31.

The two contenders to replace May, former London mayor Boris Johnson and foreign minister Jeremy Hunt, have both indicated they could support leaving the EU without a deal, making a future agreement with the United States even more important.

Trade minister Liam Fox, who was visiting Washington this week, said he would apologize to Trump’s daughter Ivanka whom he was due to meet during his trip.

‘SERIOUS CONSEQUENCES’ FOR LEAKER

In confidential memos to his government dating from 2017 to the present, Darroch had said reports of in-fighting in the White House were “mostly true” and last month described confusion within the administration over Trump’s decision to call off a military strike on Iran.

“We don’t really believe this Administration is going to become substantially more normal; less dysfunctional; less unpredictable; less faction driven; less diplomatically clumsy and inept,” Darroch wrote in one cable.

British officials have launched an inquiry to find out who was responsible for the leak and foreign minister Hunt promised “serious consequences” for whoever was responsible.

He told the Sun newspaper that the inquiry would consider whether the memos had been obtained by hacking by a hostile state such as Russia although he said he had seen no evidence for this.

Asked whether British spies would join in the hunt, Jeremy Fleming, the head of the GCHQ intelligence agency, told BBC radio: “I can’t get into the detail of the investigation. If they require our services then GCHQ will help.”

Christopher Meyer, a former British ambassador to Washington, said there was a “possible range of villains”.

“It was clearly somebody who set out deliberately to sabotage Sir Kim’s ambassadorship, to make his position untenable and to have him replaced by somebody more congenial to the leaker,” he told BBC radio.

Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexit Party and long a thorn in the side of British governments, said figures such as Darroch would be “not be around” if Johnson, the favorite to replace May, was selected by Conservative Party members.

However, former British foreign minister William Hague said Darroch should not be removed from his post, pointing out that no U.S. diplomats had been withdrawn from their roles after the mass release of secret U.S. cables by WikiLeaks in 2010 which included highly critical appraisals of world leaders.

“You can’t change an ambassador at the demand of a host country. It is their job to give an honest assessment of what is happening in that country,” Hague told BBC radio.

May’s spokesman said police would be involved if there was evidence that the leaker had committed a crime.

Two months ago, May fired defense minister Gavin Williamson after secret discussions in the National Security Council about Chinese telecoms firm Huawei were leaked to the media, and an inquiry concluded that he was responsible.

Williamson denied any involvement and police said there was no reason for a criminal investigation.

(Additional reporting by Andrew MacAskill, Kate Holton and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Jon Boyle)

Trump imposes new U.S. sanctions on Iran, including supreme leader

U.S. President Donald Trump displays an executive order imposing fresh sanctions on Iran in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., June 24, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Steve Holland and Stephen Kalin

WASHINGTON/RIYADH (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump imposed new U.S. sanctions on Iran on Monday following Tehran’s downing of an unmanned American drone and said the measures would target Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Trump told reporters he was signing an executive order for the sanctions amid tensions between the United States and Iran that have grown since May, when Washington ordered all countries to halt imports of Iranian oil.

Trump also said the sanctions would have been imposed regardless of the incident over the drone. He said the supreme leaders was ultimately responsible for what Trump called “the hostile conduct of the regime.”

“Sanctions imposed through the executive order … will deny the Supreme Leader and the Supreme Leader’s office, and those closely affiliated with him and the office, access to key financial resources and support,” Trump said.

The Trump administration wants to force Tehran to open talks on its nuclear and missile programs and its activities in the region.

Iran said on Monday U.S. cyber attacks on its military had failed, as Washington sought to rally support in the Middle East and Europe for a hardline stance that has brought it to the verge of conflict with its longtime foe.

Washington has blamed Tehran for attacks on tankers in the Gulf in recent weeks, which Iran denies. On Monday, the United States said it was building a coalition with allies to protect Gulf shipping lanes.

A coalition of nations would provide both material and financial contributions to the program, a senior U.S. State Department official said, without identifying the countries.

“It’s about proactive deterrence, because the Iranians just want to go out and do what they want to do and say hey we didn’t do it. We know what they’ve done,” the official told reporters, adding that the deterrents would include cameras, binoculars and ships.

The United States accuses Iran of encouraging allies in Yemen to attack Saudi targets.

In a joint statement on Monday, the United States, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Britain expressed concern over Middle East tensions and the dangers posed by Iranian “destabilizing activity” to peace and security in Yemen and the region.

The confrontation between Iran and the United States heated up last Thursday when Iran shot down an American drone, saying it had flown over its air space.

Washington, which said the drone was in international skies, then appeared to come close to attacking Iranian military targets, with Trump saying that he aborted a retaliatory air strike 10 minutes before it was to go ahead.

Trump said he decided the strike, to punish Iran for shooting down the drone, would have killed too many people.

U.S. media have reported that Washington launched cyber attacks last week even as Trump called off his 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.

FEARS OF WAR

Iran dismissed the cyber attacks as a failure.

“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 by 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 that Iran must do a deal before sanctions could be lifted.

CONCESSIONS

U.S.-Iran relations have deteriorated over the past year since 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.

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 President Hassan Rouhani.

France, Britain and Germany have sent an official diplomatic warning to Iran if Tehran reduces its compliance with the accord, two European diplomats said on Monday.

It was not immediately clear what consequences Iran might face for non-compliance.

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

Both sides have suggested they are willing to hold talks while demanding the other side move first. In the latest comment from Tehran, an adviser to Rouhani repeated a longstanding demand that Washington lift sanctions before any talks.

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.”

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

Ex-U.S. Marine accused of spying by Russia asks Trump to help

Former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who was detained and accused of espionage, speaks inside a defendants' cage during a court hearing to consider an appeal to extend his detention in Moscow, Russia June 20, 2019. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

MOSCOW (Reuters) – A former U.S. Marine held in Russia on suspicion of spying called on U.S. President Donald Trump and the leaders of Britain, Canada and Ireland to help him as he appeared in court at an appeal hearing on Thursday.

Paul Whelan, who holds U.S., British, Canadian and Irish passports, was detained in a Moscow hotel room on Dec. 28 and accused of espionage, a charge he denies. If found guilty, he faces up to 20 years in jail.

Whelan said last month that he had been threatened by a Russian investigator in custody and harassed, accusations that added to strains in U.S.-Russian relations.

“Mr president (Trump), we cannot keep America great unless we aggressively protect and defend American citizens wherever they are in the world,” Whelan told reporters at a hearing in Moscow on Thursday.

“I am asking the leaders and governments in Ottawa, Dublin, London and Washington for their help and public statements of support,” he said, standing inside a glass cage.

Whelan’s lawyer has said his client was framed and that he was given a flash drive by an acquaintance that he thought contained holiday photos, but that actually held classified information.

Whelan was in court on Thursday to appeal against the extension of his custody until Aug. 29. The court ruled against him.

(Reporting by Maxim Rodionov; writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Putin to Britain: Let’s forget about the Skripal poisoning

Police officers guard a cordoned off area in the city centre where former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found poisoned, in Salisbury, Britain, April 3, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay - RC1CDB2BFBB0

By Vladimir Soldatkin and Andrew Osborn

ST PETERSBURG/MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday he hoped Britain’s next prime minister would forget about the poisoning of a former double agent in England last year in order to improve battered ties.

The poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury with a nerve agent prompted a wave of diplomatic expulsions and recriminations with ties between London and Moscow shriveling to a post-Cold War low in its wake.

British prosecutors have since charged two Russian military intelligence officers, known by the aliases Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, with attempted murder in their absence, though the Kremlin has repeatedly denied Russian involvement.

Putin, speaking to media on the sidelines of an economic forum in St Petersburg, said he hoped whoever succeeded Theresa May as Britain’s prime minister would see what he described as the bigger picture and move on from the Skripal incident.

May is due to step down soon after failing to persuade parliament to back a deal on Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. The ruling Conservative Party is in the process of choosing her successor.

“When all’s said and done we need to turn this page connected with spies and assassination attempts,” said Putin, who described Sergei Skripal, a former colonel in Russian military intelligence who betrayed dozens of agents to Britain’s MI6 foreign spy service, as London’s spy.

“He’s your agent not ours. That means you spied against us and it’s hard for me to say what happened with him subsequently. We need to forget about all this in the final analysis,” said Putin.

The Russian leader recalled his own lengthy experience working first for the Soviet Union’s KGB spy service and then Russia’s FSB security service, which he suggested meant he knew what he was talking about.

“Global issues linked with common national interests in the economic, social and security spheres are more important than games played by intelligence services. I’m talking to you as an expert, believe me. We need to cast off this fluff and get down to business.”

Putin said better ties between London and Moscow would benefit the interests of 600 British companies he said were working in Russia.

“They want to feel secure …. and we regard them as friends.”

May’s spokeswoman, reacting to Putin’s statement, said London would continue to engage with Russia on matters of international security, but that Moscow had to change its behavior.

“We have been clear that Russia’s pattern of aggression and destabilizing behavior undermines its claims to be a responsible international partner,” she said.

“…The PM has made clear on numerous occasions we can only have a different relationship if Russia changes its behavior.”

(Additional reporting by William James in London and by Tom Balmforth in Moscow; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Christian Lowe)

Donald Trump welcomed to Buckingham Palace by Queen Elizabeth

U.S. President Donald Trump inspects an honour guard at Buckingham Palace, in London, Britain, June 3, 2019. REUTERS/Simon Dawson/Pool

By Steve Holland and Toby Melville

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain rolled out the royal red carpet for Donald Trump on Monday but the pomp, pageantry and banquet with Queen Elizabeth looked set to be overshadowed by the U.S. President’s views on Brexit, the UK’s next leader and a row over China’s Huawei.

U.S. President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump arrive for their state visit to Britain, at Stansted Airport near London, Britain, June 3, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

U.S. President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump arrive for their state visit to Britain, at Stansted Airport near London, Britain, June 3, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Trump and his wife, Melania, were greeted by the 93-year-old monarch at Buckingham Palace at the start of a three-day state visit which sees him feted with the full force of royal ceremony: a formal dinner with the queen, tea with heir Prince Charles, and a tour of Westminster Abbey, coronation church of English monarchs for 1,000 years.

“I look forward to being a great friend to the United Kingdom, and am looking very much forward to my visit,” Trump wrote on Twitter as he landed at London’s Stansted Airport.

But beyond the theater, the proudly unpredictable 45th U.S. president is rocking the boat with the United States’ closest ally, whose political establishment has been in chaos for months over Britain’s departure from the European Union.

As he was flying into the British capital, he reignited a feud with London Mayor Sadiq Khan – who had written on Sunday that Britain should not be rolling out the red carpet for the U.S. president – describing him as a “stone cold loser.

The state visit, promised by Prime Minister Theresa May back in January 2017 when she became the first foreign leader to meet him after he took office, is cast as a chance to celebrate Britain’s “special relationship” with the United States, boost trade links and reaffirm security cooperation.

At Buckingham Palace, Melania, stood beside Elizabeth and Charles’s wife Camilla, while Charles and Trump inspected the guard.

Trump will have lunch with the queen before the monarch’s second son Prince Andrew accompanies him to Westminster Abbey where the president will lay a wreath at the Grave of the Unknown Warrior.

The day culminates with a lavish state banquet at Buckingham Palace – where men wear white tie coats with tails and women evening gowns.

U.S. President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump meet Britain's Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, as they arrives at Buckingham Palace, in London, Britain, June 3, 2019. REUTERS/Simon Dawson/Pool

U.S. President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump meet Britain’s Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, as they arrives at Buckingham Palace, in London, Britain, June 3, 2019. REUTERS/Simon Dawson/Pool

UNCONVENTIONAL

But away from the pageantry, Trump is set to make his trip the most unconventional state visit in recent British history.

He has already waded far into Britain’s turbulent domestic politics, where more than a dozen candidates are vying to replace May, who announced last month she was quitting after failing to get her EU divorce deal through parliament.

The president, who has regularly criticized May’s Brexit tactics, said Britain must leave the bloc on the due date of Oct. 31 with or without a deal and praised a more radical Brexit-supporting potential successor as British leader.

He also called for arch-Brexiteer Nigel Farage, a scourge of May’s ruling Conservative Party, to conduct talks with the EU.

Brexit is the most significant geopolitical move for the United Kingdom since World War Two and if it ever happens then London will be more reliant on the United States as ties loosen with the other 27 members of the EU.

HUAWEI TENSIONS

At a meeting with May, Trump will also warn Britain that security cooperation, a cornerstone of the western intelligence network, could be hurt if London allows China’s Huawei a role in building parts of the 5G network, the next generation of cellular technology.

The Trump administration has told allies not to use its 5G technology and equipment because of fears it would allow China to spy on sensitive communications and data. Huawei denies it is, or could be, a vehicle for Chinese intelligence.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Britain last month it needed to change its attitude toward China and Huawei, casting the world’s second-largest economy as a threat to the West similar to that once posed by the Soviet Union.

Britain’s relationship with the United States is an enduring alliance, but some British voters see Trump as crude, volatile and opposed to their values on issues ranging from global warming to his treatment of women.

Hundreds of thousands protested against him during a trip last year and a blimp depicting Trump as a snarling, nappy-clad baby will fly outside Britain’s parliament during the visit. Other protesters plan a “carnival of resistance” in central London.

Jeremy Corbyn, the socialist leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party, who has declined an invitation to attend the state banquet, scolded Trump for getting involved in British politics.

 

While Monday is dominated by pageantry, the second day of Trump’s trip will focus on politics, including breakfast with business leaders, talks with May in 10 Downing Street, a news conference and a dinner at the U.S. ambassador’s residence.

(Additional reporting by Kate Holton, Andrew MacAskill, Alistair Smout and William Schomberg; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Michael Holden; Editing by Jon Boyle)

From archaeologists to vets, UK widens list of desired immigrants

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain needs a wider range of immigrants to tackle shortages of workers ranging from archaeologists and architects to vets and web developers, government advisors said on Wednesday, just days after figures showed immigration had fallen to a five-year low.

Britain is reviewing its immigration system as it prepares to leave the European Union, which allows almost unrestricted free movement of workers between its 28 member states.

More than 3 million foreigners have moved permanently to Britain since 2009, despite the government’s aim to reduce net migration to 100,000 a year, and this was a top worry for voters at the time of 2016’s referendum to leave the EU.

However, in its first full review of job shortages in five years, the government’s Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) said shortages of workers in Britain’s economy had increased since 2013, as unemployment had fallen to its lowest since 1975.

The body, made up mostly of academic labor market economists, recommended that jobs similar to those done by 9% of workers in Britain should be put on an immigration shortage list, up from less than 1% in 2013.

“The expansion comes mainly from the wider set of health and IT sector jobs included,” the report said.

The MAC’s recommendations are not binding, but the government has generally followed previous suggestions.

Inclusion on the ‘shortage occupation list’ would mean employers no longer needed to prove they were unable to hire a British worker to do the job, and shortage workers would have priority over some other immigrants if quotas applied.

Businesses welcomed the recommendation from the body, which has already urged the government to lift a cap on high-skilled immigrants, but had upset some firms by opposing a new category of post-Brexit visa for low-skilled EU workers.

“Our research shows that three-quarters of firms are currently unable to find the talent they need, and vacancies are being left unfilled,” the British Chambers of Commerce said.

However Migration Watch UK, a body that wants less immigration, called the new job shortage list “astonishing”.

“The MAC seems to have turned 180 degrees from its previous emphasis on encouraging employers to recruit domestically through improved wages, better conditions and boosted training,” Migration Watch’s vice-chairman, Alp Mehmet, said.

Stricter border controls were Britons’ top concern at the time of the 2016 referendum, but this has now fallen to third place, behind funding public healthcare and education, according to recent polling by market research company Kantar.

Nonetheless, some 42% of Britons still want to restrict EU citizens’ future rights to live in Britain after Brexit, while only 33% wanted to preserve them.

(Reporting by David Milliken; editing by Stephen Addison)