French police fire tear gas at strikers challenging Macron reform

By Sybille de La Hamaide and Marine Pennetier

PARIS (Reuters) – Police fired tear gas at protesters in the center of Paris on Thursday and public transport ground to a near halt in one of the biggest strikes in France for decades, aimed at forcing President Emmanuel Macron to ditch a planned reform of pensions.

The strike pits Macron, a 41-year-old former investment banker who came to power in 2017 on a promise to open up France’s highly regulated economy, against powerful trade unions who say he is set on dismantling worker protections.

The outcome depends on who blinks first – the unions who risk losing public support if the disruption goes on for too long, or the government which fears voters could side with the unions and blame officials for the standoff.

“People can work around it today and tomorrow, but next week people may get annoyed,” said 56-year-old cafe owner Isabelle Guibal.

Rail workers voted to extend their strike through Friday, while labor unions at the Paris bus and metro operator RATP said their walkout would continue until Monday.

Trade unions achieved their initial objective on Thursday, as workers at transport enterprises, schools and hospitals across France joined the strike. In Paris, commuters had to dust off old bicycles, rely on car pooling apps, or just stay at home. The Eiffel Tower had to close to visitors.

On Thursday afternoon, tens of thousands of union members marched through the center of the capital in a show of force.

Trouble erupted away from the main protest when people in masks and dressed in black ransacked a bus stop near the Place de la Republique, ripped up street furniture, smashed shop windows and threw fireworks at police.

Police in riot gear responded by firing tear gas, Reuters witnesses said. Nearby, police used truncheons to defend themselves from black-clad protesters who rushed at them. Prosecutors said, in all, 57 people were detained.

Macron wants to simplify France’s unwieldy pension system, which comprises more than 40 different plans, many with different retirement ages and benefits. Rail workers, mariners and Paris Opera House ballet dancers can retire up to a decade earlier than the average worker.

Macron says the system is unfair and too costly. He wants a single, points-based system under which for each euro contributed, every pensioner has equal rights.

PRESIDENT’S SWAGGER

Macron has already survived one major challenge to his rule, from the grassroots “Yellow Vest” protesters who earlier this year clashed with police and blocked roads around France for weeks on end.

Having emerged from that crisis, he carries himself with a swagger on the world stage, publicly upbraiding U.S. President Donald Trump this week over his approach to the NATO alliance and counter-terrorism.

But the pension reform – on which polls show French people evenly split between supporters and opponents – is fraught with risk for him as it chips away at social protections many in France believe are at the heart of their national identity.

“People are spoiling for a fight,” Christian Grolier, a senior official from the hard-left Force Ouvriere union which is helping organize the strike, told Reuters.

The SNCF state railway said only one in 10 high-speed TGV trains would run and police reported power cables on the line linking Paris and the Riviera had been vandalized. The civil aviation authority asked airlines to cancel 20% of flights because of knock-on effects from the strike.

Past attempts at pension reform have ended badly for the authorities. Former president Jacques Chirac’s conservative government in 1995 caved into union demands after weeks of crippling protests.

(Reporting by Caroline Pailliez, Geert de Clercq, Sybille de La Hamaide, Marine Pennetier, Laurence Frost in paris and Guillaume Frouin in Nantes; Writing by Richard Lough and Christian Lowe; Editing by Gareth Jones)

‘Very, very nasty’: Trump clashes with Macron before NATO summit

By Michel Rose and Estelle Shirbon

LONDON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump and French leader Emmanuel Macron clashed over the future of NATO on Tuesday before a summit intended to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Western military alliance.

In sharp exchanges underlining discord in a transatlantic bloc hailed by backers as the most successful military pact in history, Trump demanded that Europe pay more for its collective defense and make concessions to U.S. interests on trade.

Macron, the French president, stood by comments he made last month describing NATO as suffering from a lack of strategic purpose akin to “brain death”, and criticized fellow NATO member Turkey, which he accused of working with Islamic State proxies.

Washington and Paris have long argued over NATO’s purpose – France opposed the 2003 Iraq war – but the new tensions will add to doubts over the alliance’s future that have grown with Trump’s ambivalence over U.S. commitments to defend Europe.

Trump said Macron’s criticism of NATO was “very, very nasty” and questioned whether the U.S. military should defend any countries that were “delinquent” on alliance targets for national military spending.

“It’s not right to be taken advantage of on NATO and also then to be taken advantage of on trade, and that’s what happens. We can’t let that happen,” Trump said of transatlantic disputes on issues ranging from the aerospace sector to a European digital services tax on U.S. technology giants.

All 29 member states have a target of spending 2% of their gross domestic product on defense and Trump has singled out Germany for falling short of that goal.

But Macron stood by his criticism of NATO and said its real problem was a failure to forge a clear purpose since the end of the Cold War.

“If we invest money and put our soldiers’ lives at risk in theaters of operation we must be clear about the fundamentals of NATO,” he said in a tweet at the end of a day overshadowed by tensions between the French and U.S. leaders.

A French presidency official said Trump often makes strident statements ahead of bilateral meetings and cools his rhetoric later. He noted that Macron and Trump “exchanged jokes and were very relaxed” at a joint news conference in London.

COLLECTIVE DEFENSE AT STAKE

Turkey threatened to block a plan to defend Baltic states and Poland against Russian attacks unless NATO backed Ankara in recognizing the Kurdish YPG militia as terrorists.

The YPG’s fighters have long been U.S. and French allies against Islamic State in Syria. Turkey considers them an enemy because of links to Kurdish insurgents in southeastern Turkey.

“If our friends at NATO do not recognize as terrorist organizations those we consider terrorist organizations … we will stand against any step that will be taken there,” Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said before traveling to London.

Erdogan has already strained alliance ties with a move to buy Russian air defense systems. Trump said he was looking at imposing sanctions on Ankara over the issue.

The uncertainty over the plan for Poland and the Baltic states, drawn up at their request after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, raises issues about security on all of NATO’s frontiers.

Under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s 1949 founding treaty, an attack on one ally is an attack on all its members, and the alliance has military strategies for collective defense across its territory.

The summit, in a hotel in Hertfordshire just outside London, begins on Wednesday.

On Tuesday evening, alliance leaders attended a reception hosted by Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace.

The British monarch, in a teal-colored matching jacket and skirt, greeted the summiteers and accompanying partners, including former fashion model Melania Trump, who was wearing a bright yellow dress with matching cape and purple sleeves.

They were then welcomed to 10 Downing Street by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, host of the summit a little over a week before the country faces an election.

Several hundred protesters gathered in London’s Trafalgar Square, holding placards reading: “Dump Trump” and “No to racism, no to Trump”. A police line divided them from a small group of Trump supporters wearing Make America Great Again caps, waving American flags and shouting: “Build the wall”.

In Washington on Tuesday, Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives laid out their impeachment case against Trump, accusing him of using the powers of his office to solicit foreign interference in the 2020 election.

Hoping to placate Trump, Europe, Turkey and Canada will pledge at the summit some $400 billion in defense spending by 2024, and agree to a reduction of the U.S. contribution to fund the alliance itself.

The allies will approve a new strategy to monitor China’s growing military activity, and identify space as a domain of warfare, alongside air, land, sea and computer networks.

Trump said he believed Russia wanted deals on arms control and nuclear issues, and that he would be willing to bring China into such accords.

(Reporting by Steve Holland, Phil Stewart, Robin Emmott and Iona Serrapica in London, Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul, Joanna Plucinska in Warsaw and Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow; Writing by Mark John and John Chalmers; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Peter Cooney)

U.S. accuses Russia of helping Syria cover up chemical weapons use

By Anthony Deutsch

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – The United States on Thursday accused Russia of helping Syria conceal the use of banned toxic munitions in the civil war by undermining the work of the global chemical weapons agency trying to identify those responsible.

The comments by the U.S. representative to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Kenneth Ward, drew a rapid denial from Moscow and came as Western powers and Russia clashed at the agency’s annual conference in The Hague.

Moscow has for months cited dissent by two former OPCW employees who leaked a document and an email as evidence that the OPCW doctored the conclusions of a March 1 report which found that a toxic chemical containing chlorine was used in a 2018 attack near Damascus.

More than 40 people were killed in that attack in Douma, a town on the outskirts of the capital then held by rebels, on April 7, 2018.

The United States, Britain and France retaliated a week later by firing missiles at Syrian government targets, the biggest Western military action against the Damascus authorities of the eight-year-old war.

Syria and Russia deny there ever was a chemical attack in Douma, saying the event was staged using bodies brought from elsewhere, and that the OPCW’s report on Douma was doctored to justify Western military intervention.

The OPCW has become the battleground for a diplomatic clash on Syria after Russia in 2017 vetoed a resolution to extend the mandate of the U.N.-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), which concluded in a series of reports that the Syrian military used both nerve agent sarin and chlorine as weapons.

The OPCW’s own Investigation and Identification Team (IIT), which was established by a clear majority vote by its member states in June 2018, is looking into who was responsible for the Douma attack, among several other incidents.

Its first report is expected next year.

Russian Ambassador to the OPCW, Alexander Shulgin, repeated objections to the creation of the IIT, saying it was illegal and politicized. Syria’s representative to the OPCW on Thursday vowed not to cooperate with the IIT’s investigations.

Ward said Russia and Syria were merely seeking to cover up the use of chemical weapons by undermining the OPCW.

“Unfortunately the Russian Federation has played a central role in this cover-up,” Ward told delegates. “Russia and Syria may sit with us here, but they stand apart from us in a fundamental way. They continue to embrace chemical weapons.”

Shulgin rejected the U.S. claim that Russia was helping Syria cover up chemical crimes carried out by the Syrian regime.

“It is exquisite rhetoric… But these assertions do not hold water. We disagree,” Shulgin said.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch, Editing by William Maclean)

In gesture to Trump, US allies close to deal to pay more for NATO running costs

By Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – NATO allies are closing in on a deal to contribute more to allied running costs to reduce the United States’ share of funding, three diplomats familiar with the matter said.

Agreement would meet a demand by U.S. President Donald Trump, though France has made clear it will have no part in the deal, which the alliance hopes to reach before its 70th anniversary summit in London next week.

Trump has accused European allies, especially Europe’s biggest economy Germany, of taking U.S. protection for granted and says they need to spend much more on their own defense.

The reform of financing for the U.S.-led military alliance would seal months of negotiations after NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg put forward a proposal.

The agreement would mean European allies, Turkey and Canada contribute more towards the annual $2.5-billion budget to run the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation headquarters, international staff and military assets under NATO command.

Compared to the hundreds of billions of dollars that allies spend on their armed forces each year, it is a small sum. But it is one that allies hope would silence Trump’s statement in July 2018 that the United States “pays tens of billions of dollars too much to subsidize Europe”.

“It is a political gesture,” one senior NATO diplomat of the possible deal. “There is no alliance without the Americans.”

France opposed the proposal long before President Emmanuel Macron described the alliance on Nov. 7 as “experiencing brain death”, French diplomats have said.

With 30,000 troops deployed and ships across the world, Paris says it already does more than its fair share in defense, maintaining a high level of combat readiness of French forces and pouring billions of euros into defense research.

Paris will not block the proposal, but will abstain, the three NATO diplomats said.

France’s defense spending is higher than Germany’s as a percentage of economic output, data shows. Paris says it will also meet a NATO target to spend 2% of national output on defense by 2025 at the latest, while Germany will reach that level only in 2031, according to French and German officials.

NUMBERS GAME

Canada has said its support for the funding agreement should not set a precedent for other international organizations, the diplomats said. Italy has yet to decide its position, they said.

All 29 NATO member states contribute to the budget on an agreed formula based on gross national income, but this formula would change after the proposed reform.

“It will be a more cumbersome mechanism,” a second NATO diplomat said.

Under the proposal being negotiated for the 2021 budget, the U.S. contribution to the alliance’s annual budget would fall to around 16% from 22%. Germany’s would rise to the same level as the United States and others’ contributions would also rise.

Only seven NATO countries currently meet or exceed the NATO target of spending 2% of national output on defense – the United States, Britain, Greece, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Iran distances itself further from nuclear deal, alarming Russia, France

Iran distances itself further from nuclear deal, alarming Russia, France
By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran has stepped up activity at its underground Fordow nuclear plant, state TV said on Wednesday, a move France said showed for the first time that Tehran explicitly planned to quit a deal with world powers that curbed its disputed nuclear work.

In another development that could also aggravate tensions between Iran and the West, diplomats said Iran briefly held an inspector for the U.N. nuclear watchdog and seized her travel documents, with some describing this as harassment.

The incident involving an International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) inspector appeared to be the first of its kind since Tehran’s landmark deal with major powers was struck in 2015, imposing restraints on its uranium enrichment program in return for the lifting of international sanctions.

Iran’s decision to inject uranium gas into centrifuges at Fordow, a move that further distances Iran from the accord, was described by Moscow as extremely alarming. Iran once hid Fordow from the IAEA until its exposure by Western spies in 2009.

“With the presence of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran started injecting (uranium) gas into centrifuges in Fordow,” TV reported.

A central aim of the agreement was to extend the time the Islamic Republic would need to assemble a nuclear weapon, if it chose to do so, to a year from about 2-3 months. Iran has repeatedly denied any such intention.

The 2015 deal bans Fordow from producing nuclear material. But, with feedstock gas entering its centrifuges, the facility – built inside a mountain – will move from the permitted status of research plant to being an active nuclear site.

A spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Behrouz Kamalvandi, told state TV later that the injection of uranium gas would start at midnight (2030 GMT). He said the centrifuges there would enrich uranium up to 4.5% fissile purity. Ninety percent purity is required for bomb-grade fuel.

President Hassan Rouhani, an architect of the 2015 deal, blamed Washington for Iran’s rolling back of its commitments, saying Fordow would soon fully resume uranium enrichment work.

“Iran’s fourth step in reducing its commitments under the JCPOA (the 2015 nuclear deal) by injecting gas to 1,044 centrifuges begins today. Thanks to U.S. policy and its allies, Fordow will soon be back to full operation,” Rouhani tweeted.

Last year, U.S. President Donald Trump exited the deal, saying it was flawed to Iran’s advantage. Washington has since renewed and intensified sanctions on Iran, slashing its economically vital crude oil sales by more than 80%.

“PROFOUND SHIFT”

Speaking in China, French President Emmanuel Macron called Iran’s latest move “grave”, saying it explicitly signaled Iran’s intent for the first time to leave the deal.

“I think that for the first time, Iran has decided in an explicit and blunt manner to leave the JCPOA, which marks a profound shift,” said Macron, who has been at the forefront of efforts by European signatories to salvage the deal after the United States withdrew.

When asked whether Paris would support triggering a dispute mechanism enshrined in the deal, Macron said technical and ministerial meetings would be held to discuss the wider implications of Iran’s actions.

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said events unfolding around the nuclear deal were deeply disturbing and called on Iran to stick to the terms of the deal.

But he added that Moscow understood why Tehran was cutting back on its commitments, and blamed the situation on the U.S. decision to pull out of the pact.

Responding to Washington’s “maximum pressure” policy, Iran has bypassed the restrictions of the deal step-by-step – including by breaching both its cap on stockpiled enriched uranium and on the fissile level of enrichment.

“Iran has taken its fourth step to decrease its nuclear commitments to the deal in reaction to the increased U.S. pressure and inactivity of European parties to the deal to save it,” Iranian state TV added.

SPEEDING UP ENRICHMENT

In Vienna, the U.N. nuclear watchdog said IAEA inspectors remained on the ground in Iran and would report back on relevant activities.

Iranian authorities said on Tuesday that Tehran will enrich uranium to 5% at Fordow, which will further complicate the chances of saving an accord that European powers, Russia and the European Union have urged Iran to respect.

The agreement capped the level of purity to which Iran can enrich uranium at 3.67% – suitable for civilian power generation and far below the 90% threshold of nuclear weapons grade.

On Monday, Iran said it had accelerated enrichment by doubling the number of advanced IR-6 centrifuges in operation, adding that it was working on “a prototype called the IR-9, which works 50 times faster than IR-1 centrifuges”.

The deal, under which international sanctions against Iran were lifted, was tailored to extend the “breakout time” – how long Iran would need to accumulate enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb.

Iran has given another two-month deadline to Britain, France and Germany to salvage the deal. Leaving room for diplomacy, Tehran says talks are possible if Washington lifts all the sanctions and itself returns to the nuclear deal.

The incident involving the IAEA inspector is due to be discussed at a meeting of the agency’s 35-nation Board of Governors on Thursday convened at short notice to discuss “two safeguards matters” not specified in the agenda.

“The agency wants to show how seriously they are taking this. It is a potentially damaging precedent,” one Western official said. An IAEA spokesman and Iran’s ambassador to the U.N. watchdog declined to comment.

(Additional reporting by Marine Pennetier, Maria Kiselyova, Francois Murphy and John Irish; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by William Maclean and Mark Heinrich)

France worried by new phase in Iran’s breaching of nuclear pact

France worried by new phase in Iran’s breaching of nuclear pact
By John Irish

PARIS (Reuters) – France urged Iran on Wednesday not to scale back further on its commitments to a 2015 nuclear deal, saying Tehran’s new threat to speed up uranium enrichment next month was “especially worrying”.

Iran is breaching restrictions of the pact with major powers step-by-step in response to tough sanctions imposed by the United States, which pulled out of the deal last year.

Tehran has said its next move would be taken on Nov. 6 and diplomats fear this could force a response from European powers, who have been trying to salvage the accord. Britain, France and Germany, all signatories, have refrained from acting so far.

“Iran must abstain from crossing an especially worrying new phase of new measures that could contribute to an escalation in tensions,” French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Agnès von der Muhll told reporters in a daily briefing.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Monday that Tehran was working on advanced IR-9 centrifuges for uranium enrichment.

The nuclear deal only lets Iran accumulate enriched uranium with just over 5,000 of its first-generation IR-1 centrifuges at Natanz. It lets Iran use small numbers of more advanced models for research, without producing enriched uranium.

Iran is now enriching uranium with advanced centrifuges and installing more that should come online in coming weeks.

Rouhani’s remarks suggested Iran was developing a new centrifuge, the IR-9, violating the deal which specifies the centrifuges Iran can use and making no mention of an IR-9.

French President Emmanuel Macron attempted and failed last month to broker talks between U.S. President Donald Trump and Rouhani in New York. Prospects of any talks in coming weeks seem slim with Tehran demanding U.S. sanctions are lifted first.

The nuclear deal aimed to extend the so-called “breakout time” Iran would need to obtain enough fissile material for a bomb, if it sought one, to a year instead of two or three months.

“Nov. 6 will be Iran’s fourth violation. Until now they have been political and symbolic with a limited impact on the breakout time, but the more they violate, the less choice and latitude they have that doesn’t impact the breakout time,” said a French diplomatic source.

“After November, the world doesn’t end, but it becomes much harder to save the deal,” the source added.

Iran says it has enriched uranium for civilian purposes and has never sought nuclear weapons, but the United States and IAEA believe it once had a nuclear weapons program that it ended.

“Iran is underscoring that it will no longer be hemmed in by the nuclear agreement, nor is it particularly alarmed by the increasingly concerned statements coming out of Europe,” Eurasia’s Iran analyst Henry Rome said.

“This is a recipe for a significant nuclear escalation in early November, not just another incremental step.”

(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Catherine Evans and Edmund Blair)

Hundreds of arrests as London climate-change activists vow more protests

By Simon Dawson Helena Williams

LONDON (Reuters) – London police have made nearly 500 arrests as climate-change protesters, labelled “uncooperative crusties” by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, continue two weeks of civil disobedience to push for more to be done to protect the environment.

The Extinction Rebellion group has been taking action in several countries including Britain, Germany, Austria, Australia, France and New Zealand as it lobbies politicians to go further in cutting carbon emissions.

The protests are the latest stage in a global campaign for tougher and swifter steps against climate change coordinated by the group, which rose to prominence in April when it snarled traffic in central London for 11 days.

Police said 152 arrests had been made on Tuesday, taking the total number over the two days to 471 as some protesters lay down in the road outside parliament whilst others dressed in colourful costumes or brought tree saplings to give to lawmakers.

Police have introduced stricter conditions, saying anyone wanting to continue the protest can only do so in Trafalgar Square.

“This action is necessary in order to prevent the demonstrations from causing serious disruption to the community,” police said. “Anyone who fails to comply with the condition is liable to arrest and prosecution.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson criticised the protesters when he attended an event late on Monday.

“I am afraid the security people didn’t want me to come along tonight because they said the road was full of uncooperative crusties,” he said, using a slang term for eco-protesters.

“They said there was some risk that I would be egged,” he added.

On Tuesday, some protesters hit back at him.

“It’s not helpful,” Diana Jones, from the southern English county of Sussex, told Reuters.

“We’re just ordinary people trying to express our deep disappointment with how slow the process of getting climate change action to occur is taking place, with the government not really listening, not really taking it forward on the scale it needs to be taken.”

The group wants Britain to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025 rather than the government’s 2050 target.

(Additional reporting by Henry Nicholls and Ben Makori; writing by Costas Pitas; editing by Stephen Addison)

Nothing ruled out in probe into knife attack at Paris police headquarters

French police and firefighters are seen in front of the Paris Police headquarters in Paris, France, October 3, 2019. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

By Matthieu Protard

PARIS (Reuters) – Investigators are not ruling out any hypothesis in their probe into the fatal knife attack at the headquarters of the Paris police, authorities said on Friday.

A 45-year-old IT assistant killed three police officers and an administrative worker inside the Paris police building on Thursday before he was shot dead by an officer.

French media reported that the attacker had converted to Islam 18 months ago. Officials have not said anything about a possible motive for the attack and said they were still trying to discover if there was a terrorism link.

“No hypothesis is being ruled out at this stage,” Paris police chief Didier Lallement said at a news conference. He said he would not respond to further questions on the matter.

The attack took place on the historic Ile de la Cite island in the River Seine, close to Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral.

In the past four years, the French capital has been rocked by violent attacks resulting in mass casualties.

Co-ordinated bombings and shootings by Islamist militants in November 2015, at the Bataclan theater and other locations around Paris, killed 130 people in the deadliest attacks in France since World War Two.

(Reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta, Writing by Matthieu Protard, Editing by Geert De Clercq and Janet Lawrence)

Paris police employee stabs four to death in force HQ before being shot dead

By Simon Carraud and Sudip Kar-Gupta

PARIS (Reuters) – A police administrative worker went on a knife rampage inside the force’s headquarters on Thursday, killing four people before being shot dead by an officer, police officials said.

There was no official word on the motive for the attack, which took place in the heart of the French capital near to Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral.

But Jean-Marc Bailleul, a police union leader, described the incident as criminal rather than an act of terror. “It was a moment of madness,” Bailleul told BFM TV.

The area around the police headquarters was sealed off and the nearest metro station was shut for security reasons, the transport authority said.

President Emmanuel Macron is expected to visit the scene later on Thursday.

A police official and member of the collective “Police up in Anger”, which advocates for better conditions for officers, was quoted by franceinfo radio as saying the assailant had experienced issues with his supervisor.

“I know there were tensions between him and his direct supervisor,” Christophe Crepin told franceinfo. “I do not think this is a terrorist act.”

A police spokesman said he had no comment on the incident.

An official at the prosecutor’s anti-terrorism office said that for now, his office was not leading the investigation.

(Writing by Benoit Van Overstraeten and Christian Lowe; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

Netanyahu tells Macron timing wrong for Iran talks: statement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Reporting by Maayan Lubell, Editing by William Maclean)