China defies U.S. pressure as EU parts ways with Iranian oil

A gas flare on an oil production platform in the Soroush oil fields is seen alongside an Iranian flag in the Persian Gulf, Iran, July 25, 2005. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi/File Photo

By Chen Aizhu and Florence Tan

BEIJING/SINGAPORE (Reuters) – China, seeking to skirt U.S. sanctions, will use oil tankers from Iran for its purchases of that country’s crude, throwing Tehran a lifeline while European companies such as France’s Total are walking away due to fear of reprisals from Washington.

The United States is trying to halt Iranian oil exports in an effort to force Tehran to negotiate a new nuclear agreement and to curb its influence in the Middle East.

China, which has cut imports of U.S. crude amid a trade war with Washington, has said it opposes unilateral sanctions and defended its commercial ties with Iran.

On Monday, sources told Reuters Chinese buyers of Iranian oil were beginning to shift their cargoes to vessels owned by National Iranian Tanker Co (NITC) for nearly all their imports.

The shift demonstrates that China, Iran’s biggest oil customer, wants to keep buying Iranian crude despite the sanctions, which were reimposed after the United States withdrew in May from a 2015 agreement to halt Iran’s nuclear program.

“The shift started very recently, and it was almost a simultaneous call from both sides,” said one source, a senior Beijing-based oil executive, who asked not to be identified as he is not allowed to speak publicly about commercial deals.

Tehran used a similar system between 2012 and 2016 to circumvent Western-led sanctions, which had curtailed exports by making it virtually impossible to obtain shipping insurance for business with Iran.

Iran, OPEC’s third-largest oil producer, relies on sales of crude to China, Japan, South Korea, India and the EU to generate the lion’s share of budget revenues and keep its economy afloat.

The United States has asked buyers of Iranian oil to cut imports from November. Japan, South Korea, India and most European countries have already slashed operations.

French oil major Total, previously one of the biggest European buyers of Iranian oil, has said it had no choice but to halt imports and abandon Iranian projects to safeguard its operations in the United States.

On Monday, Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh said Total had officially left Iran’s South Pars gas project.

Total later confirmed it had notified the Iranian authorities of its withdrawal from South Pars after it failed to obtain a waiver from U.S. sanctions.

Iranian officials had earlier suggested China’s state-owned CNPC could take over Total’s stake and Zanganeh said the process to replace the French company was under way.

“As for the future of Total’s share, we have not been informed of an official CNPC position, but as we have always said, CNPC, a Chinese state-owned company, has the right to resume our participation if it decides so,” Total said in an emailed statement.

WALK AWAY

French President Emmanuel Macron has repeatedly called for safeguarding the Iranian nuclear deal and defended the interests of EU companies in Iran.

But most European companies have conceded that they would be forced to walk away from Tehran for fear of sanctions and losing access to operations that require U.S. dollars.

The first round of U.S. sanctions, which included cutting off Iran and any businesses that trade with it from the U.S. financial system, went into effect on Aug. 7.

A ban on Iranian oil purchases will start in November. Insurers, which are mainly U.S.- or European-based, have begun winding down their Iranian business to comply with the sanctions.

To safeguard their supplies, state oil trader Zhuhai Zhenrong Corp and Sinopec Group, Asia’s biggest refiner, have activated a clause in long-term supply agreements with National Iranian Oil Corp (NIOC) that allows them to use NITC-operated tankers, four sources with direct knowledge of the matter said.

The price for oil under the long-term deals has been changed to a delivered ex-ship basis from the previous free-on-board terms, meaning Iran will cover all costs and risks of delivering the crude as well as handling the insurance, they said.

In July, all 17 tankers chartered to carry oil from Iran to China were operated by NITC, according to shipping data on Thomson Reuters Eikon. In June, eight of 19 vessels chartered were Chinese-operated.

Last month, those tankers loaded about 23.8 million barrels of crude oil and condensate destined for China, or about 767,000 barrels per day (bpd). In June, the loadings were 19.8 million barrels, or 660,000 bpd.

In 2017, China imported an average of 623,000 bpd, according to customs data.

Sinopec declined to comment. A spokesperson for Nam Kwong Group, the parent of Zhenrong, declined to comment.

NIOC did not respond to an email seeking comment. An NITC spokesman said it would forward a request from Reuters for a comment to the country’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.

It was not immediately clear how Iran would provide insurance for the Chinese oil purchases, worth some $1.5 billion a month. Insurance usually includes cover for the oil cargoes, third-party liability, and pollution.

(Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Ankara and Cyril Altmeyer in Paris; Writing by Dmitry Zhdannikov; Editing by Dale Hudson)

Trump claims NATO victory after ‘go it alone’ ultimatum

U.S. President Donald Trump looks on as he holds a news conference after participating in the NATO Summit in Brussels, Belgium July 12, 2018. REUTERS/Reinhard Krause

By Jeff Mason and Sabine Siebold

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Donald Trump claimed a personal victory at a NATO summit on Thursday after telling European allies to increase spending or lose Washington’s support, an ultimatum that forced leaders to huddle in a crisis session with the U.S. president.

Trump emerged declaring continued commitment to a Western alliance built on U.S. military might that has stood up to Moscow since World War Two.

People present said he had earlier warned he would “go it alone” if allies, notably Germany, did not make vast increases in their defense budgets for next year.

“I let them know that I was extremely unhappy,” he said, but added that the talks ended on the best of terms: “It all came together at the end. It was a little tough for a little while.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who called the summit “very intense”, and other leaders including French President Emmanuel Macron, played down the extent to which they had pledged to accelerate spending plans as fast as Trump wanted.

“He said they must raise spending by January 2019 or the United States would go it alone,” one person said of the clash at NATO headquarters when Trump spoke in a debate that was meant to move to other matters after rows over spending on Wednesday.

Macron and others said they did not interpret Trump’s words as a direct threat to quit the alliance Washington founded in 1949 to contain Soviet expansion. Trump, asked if he thought he could withdraw from NATO without backing from Congress, said he believed he could but it was “unnecessary”.

Others say Congressional approval would be required — and would be unlikely to be forthcoming.

Trump hailed a personal victory for his own strategy in complaining loudly that NATO budgets were unfair to U.S. taxpayers, and the emergence of what he said was a warm consensus around him.

Several diplomats and officials said, however, that his undiplomatic intervention — including pointing at other leaders and addressing Merkel as “you, Angela” — had irritated many.

As the drama unfolded, a day after Trump launched a virulent public attack on German policy, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg cleared the room of many officials and the invited leaders of non-members Georgia and Afghanistan so that the other 28 leaders could hold a closed session with the president.

SPENDING TARGETS

NATO members have committed to spending at least two percent of their national income on defense by 2024, though the terms allow for stretching that in some cases to 2030. The United States, far the biggest economy, spent 3.6 percent last year, while Germany, the second biggest, paid out just 1.2 percent and only a handful of countries met the 2 percent target.

Trump told leaders he wanted them all to hit that target by January, prompting consternation. Many have already settled their 2019 budgets and the sums involved are immense — even if they wanted to, many would struggle to make useful purchases.

Merkel told reporters there followed a discussion with assurances to Trump that spending was increasing — something he later acknowledged was happening at an unprecedented rate.

“The American president demanded what has been discussed for months, that there is a change in the burden sharing,” Merkel said. “I made clear that we are on this path. And that this is in our own interests and that it will make us stronger.”

Asked when exactly the allies would now reach their two percent of GDP target, Trump said it would over the coming years. Macron said France, which last year spent 1.8 percent on defense, would meet the target by the 2024 deadline.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who like the summit host, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, was singled out in the room by Trump for spending less that 1 percent of GDP on defense, said Madrid would also meet the target by 2024.

“We have a very powerful, very strong NATO, much stronger than it was two days ago,” Trump said. “Secretary Stoltenberg gives us total credit, meaning me, I guess, in this case, total credit. Because I said it was unfair.”

(Additional reporting by Robin Emmott, Alissa de Carbonnel and Humeyra Pamuk in Brussels, John Walcott in Washington, Writing by Robin Emmott; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Jon Boyle)

Greenpeace crashes Superman-shaped drone into French nuclear plant

A Superman-shaped drone crashes into the EDF's Bugey nuclear plant in Bugey, near Lyon, France, July 3, 2018. Greenpeace said it had flown the drone - piloted by one of its activists - into the no-fly zone around utility EDF's Bugey nuclear plant and then crashed it against the wall of the plant's spent-fuel pool building, to demonstrate its vulnerability to outside attacks, the environmental group said. Nicolas Chauveau/Greenpeace/Handout via Reuters

PARIS (Reuters) – Greenpeace crashed a Superman-shaped drone into a French nuclear plant on Tuesday to demonstrate its vulnerability to outside attacks, the environmental group said.

Greenpeace said it had flown the drone – piloted by one of its activists – into the no-fly zone around utility EDF’s Bugey nuclear plant, near Lyon, and then crashed it against the wall of the plant’s spent-fuel pool building.

“This action again highlights the extreme vulnerability of this type of buildings, which contain the highest amount of radioactivity in nuclear plants,” Greenpeace said.

France generates 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear power in 19 nuclear plants operated by state-controlled EDF.

EDF said that two drones had flown over the Bugey site, of which one had been intercepted by French police.

“The presence of these drones had no impact on the security of the installations,” EDF said, adding that it will file a police complaint.

The drone stunt follows a series of staged break-ins by Greenpeace activists into French nuclear plants, which Greenpeace says are vulnerable to outside attack, especially the spent-fuel pools. These pools can hold the equivalent of several reactor cores, stored in concrete pools outside the highly reinforced reactor building.

Greenpeace says the spent-fuel buildings have not been designed to withstand outside attacks and are the most vulnerable part of French nuclear plants.

“Spent-fuel pools must be turned into bunkers in order to make nuclear plants safer,” said Greenpeace France’s chief nuclear campaigner Yannick Rousselet.

EDF said the spent-fuel pool buildings are robust and designed to withstand natural disasters and accidents.

Greenpeace’s security breaches have sparked a parliament investigation into nuclear security, which is due to present its report on Thursday.

In October, Greenpeace activists broke through two security barriers and launched fireworks over EDF’s Cattenom nuclear plant.

In February, a French court gave several Greenpeace activists suspended jail sentences while ordering the group to pay a fine and 50,000 euros ($58,300) in damages to EDF.

(Reporting by Geert De Clercq; Editing by Richard Lough)

Iran stands ground on nuclear inspections as France warns of red line

The flag of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) flutters in front of their headquarters in Vienna, Austria June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

By Francois Murphy and Sudip Kar-Gupta

VIENNA/PARIS (Reuters) – Iran will not cooperate more fully with atomic inspectors until a standoff over its nuclear deal is resolved, its U.N. envoy said, as one signatory warned Tehran against moving ahead with preparations to boost its uranium enrichment capacity.

Tehran meanwhile signaled its resolve to expand its enrichment capability by detailing plans to build advanced centrifuges – the machines that enrich uranium.

European powers have been scrambling to salvage the agreement they signed in 2015 since U.S. President Donald Trump pulled Washington out last month and said he would reimpose far-reaching U.S. sanctions on Iran.

Foreign and finance ministers from those three countries – France, Britain and Germany – have written to U.S. officials to stress their commitment to upholding the pact, and to urge Washington to spare EU firms active in Iran from secondary sanctions.

An Iranian withdrawal from the deal, which lifted sanctions on Tehran in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program, would “further unsettle a region where additional conflicts would be disastrous,” the ministers wrote in the letter dated June 4 and seen by Reuters on Wednesday.

Since the U.S. pullout was announced, authorities in Tehran have sent mixed signals on whether they believe the nuclear deal’s remaining signatories, which also include China and Russia, can salvage it.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei said on Monday he had ordered preparations to increase uranium enrichment capacity if the agreement collapsed.

Tehran also informed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N. nuclear watchdog that polices restrictions placed on its activities under the deal, of “tentative” plans to produce the feedstock for centrifuges.

In Paris on Wednesday, French Foreign Minister Yves Le Drian told Europe 1 radio that, while that initiative remained within the framework of the nuclear deal, it was unwelcome and risked sailing close to a “red line”.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Twitter that Washington was aware of reports Iran plans to increase its uranium enrichment and he vowed not to allow Tehran to develop a nuclear weapon. “Iran is aware of our resolve,” he said.

Emphasizing that Tehran’s patience with European efforts to save the deal was not unlimited, its envoy to the IAEA said it had granted the three powers a few weeks.

“A few weeks means a few weeks, not a few months,” Reza Najafi said outside a quarterly meeting of the agency’s Board of Governors in Vienna.

STANDOFF

He also dismissed calls by the IAEA to go the extra mile in cooperating with the nuclear watchdog’s inspectors, telling reporters that, while the standoff over the deal continued, “no one should expect Iran to go to implement more voluntary measures.”

“But I should emphasize that it does not mean that right now Iran will restart any activities contrary to the (deal),” Najafi added. “These are only preparatory works.”

Iran’s nuclear chief on Wednesday inaugurated work on a facility in Natanz plant in central Iran designed to build advanced centrifuges and said the center would be fully functional in a month.

“After the supreme leader’s order we prepared this center within 48 hours. We hope the facility to be completed in a month,” Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, said on state television.

Although the move was not a violation of the nuclear deal, it sent a strong signal to the West that Tehran would not succumb to the pressures.

Answering a question about a remark by Pompeo last month that Iran must halt all uranium enrichment, Salehi said: “We are far beyond that point. That man has been talking for himself.”

The agency has said Tehran is implementing its commitments, but also called for “timely and proactive cooperation” on providing access for snap inspections.

Diplomats who deal with the agency say an inspection in late April went down to the wire in terms of how quickly the IAEA team gained access to one site.

(Additional reporting by Tom Koerkemeier in Berlin, Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London and Eric Beech in Washington; writing by John Stonestreet; editing by William Maclean and James Dalgleish)

French leader Macron’s power system: never explain, never apologize

FILE PHOTO: French President Emmanuel Macron attends a ceremony to start the construction of the first metro line in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, November 30, 2017. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer/File Photo

By Michel Rose

PARIS (Reuters) – When Emmanuel Macron was gearing up for his presidential campaign in 2016, he set out on an unprecedented “great march” – a door-to-door campaign to hear voters’ grievances in what promised to be a new, more open way of running the country.

A year after his election, things have not turned out that way, and a small but growing number of rank-and-file supporters has voiced frustration at a leadership style that is, by Macron’s own admission, not always inclusive.

Surrounded by a small coterie of close aides, Macron is pushing through a series of contentious reforms with less consultation than is usual even for France, whose 1958 constitution gives the president wide-ranging powers.

The 40-year-old, described by one adviser as a hyperactive who needs little sleep, strongly defends his methods.

“I make absolutely no apology for the verticality of power,” he told literary journal La Nouvelle Revue Française.

“I am proud of the choices that are being made, and I hate the process which means you have to constantly explain the reasoning behind a decision.”

That grates with the likes of Corinne Lepage, a former minister under conservative Jacques Chirac who was one of the first well-known politicians to join Macron’s campaign in 2016.

Initially won over by the ex-minister’s charisma and a promise of doing politics differently, she said Macron’s program was written behind closed doors by the same group of people now in charge at the Elysee.

“What I quickly found embarrassing is the contradiction between the bottom-up approach that was promised and sold to the French, and the reality,” Lepage told Reuters.

“It’s democratic centralism, the Soviet way. Completely vertical. And also very masculine.”

Many grass root supporters, who set up thousands of “En Marche” committees across France during Macron’s campaign, gave up when they realized their ideas did not filter through to Paris, she said.

While there is no sign of Macron changing tack, his popularity ratings have slipped to their lowest point since he took office, with only 40 percent of the population having a favorable opinion of him, according to a recent poll.

Among the reasons for weakening support is people’s perception of an arrogant president worried about looking after the wealthy.

“WE CAN REFORM”

Despite being France’s youngest elected leader, Macron has shown a sure-footed confidence in office so far, backed by a tight group of like-minded administrators – most of them men and dubbed the “Macron Boys”, although there are women too.

Overseen by Alexis Kohler – who like Macron is an alumnus of the elite administrative school ENA and worked in the private sector – the core group of around a dozen members is responsible for driving the reform program.

It has done so at breakneck speed.

In just a year, Macron has made hiring and firing easier, slashed a wealth tax, launched an overhaul of the education system, unveiled plans to cut the number of lawmakers and confronted unions with a reform of the debt-laden railways.

More is in the pipeline.

“It’s started like a sprint but will soon turn into a marathon,” Kohler, 45, told Reuters in his gilded office, one room away from the president’s.

“We’re making plans rather far into 2018, even beyond that. We’re working on the basis that we’ll have the capacity to reform,” he said.

That confidence – in a country where governments have long been forced to water down or scrap reforms in the face of political opposition and protests – comes from a centralization of power that is down as much to men as institutions.

Macron, who wrote his undergraduate philosophy dissertation on Renaissance Italian diplomat Machiavelli famed for his chilling guide to holding power, has ensured competing voices do not easily emerge.

He has capped the number of advisers ministers can have to 10, reducing their autonomy. When Macron was economy minister, he had 25 advisers.

Ministers also allow their press interviews to be proof-read by the Elysee – sometimes by Macron himself.

Many members of the cabinet are technocrats still widely unknown to the public. The prime minister, a former conservative mayor, has had to share advisers – often Macron loyalists – with the president.

Streamlined decision making goes hand-in-hand with tight control of the message, as an occurrence at the Elysee Palace in May last year underlined.

Kohler, Macron’s most trusted adviser, wanted to ensure that French company Alstom was not sidelined by a proposed plan by German industrial giant Siemens to merge part of its operations with Canadian rival Bombardier.

Any such merger could have left Alstom, the maker of TGV high-speed trains, isolated and weakened.

“I need three months without any leaks,” Kohler told the president’s press adviser, according to a person present.

Unusually for such high-stakes cross-border deals, nothing leaked until the day a Siemens-Alstom merger was announced by the two companies four months later.

Perhaps surprisingly for a president hailed as a savior of progressive values in Europe and elsewhere, Macron’s office also announced it would move the press room – a symbol of transparency and accountability – out of the Elysee.

Macron’s “special adviser” Ismael Emelien has developed a communications strategy using Twitter and Facebook Live to cut out the media and produce slick snippets of presidential life.

LURCH TO THE RIGHT?

Shortly after his election, Macron was given a huge parliamentary majority thanks to an electoral system specifically designed by post-war leader Charles de Gaulle to maximize presidential independence from parliament.

His lawmakers, many of them newcomers to politics, have diligently passed reforms sent their way, often via legal decrees meant to speed up debate.

For investors, the ability to deliver a modernizing program is positive for the French economy and wider euro zone.

But Macron’s controlling style is not without risk.

Rivals and a handful of allies warn that the electorate could turn to populist parties in 2022 presidential elections if they feel their voices are not being heard by the presidency.

Although Macron’s majority remains solid, some supporters, mostly hailing from the left, feel he has lurched to the right and bypassed parliament.

A particularly divisive immigration bill, which critics said was too tough and jarred with Macron’s pro-refugee stance during campaigning, showed one of the first cracks in his support.

One Macron lawmaker voted against it and 14 abstained.

The defector, former Socialist Jean-Michel Clement, said there was a risk that France was drifting toward a situation where “parliamentary control is non-existent”.

“Why was I the only one to vote against this bill when everyone thought it was a bad one? Because they’re not answering the question,” he told Reuters.

“Does that mean the executive branch has a stranglehold on the legislative branch? I think it does,” he said.

And a draft constitutional reform to cut the number of lawmakers will tip the balance of power even more toward the president and the government and weaken parliament, he added.

The stakes are high: if voters conclude that Macron is merely the latest in a line of mainstream politicians that have let them down, that could benefit more extremist forces.

“The most disappointed ones won’t give their vote to the president twice. When you have Marine Le Pen at 21 percent and Jean-Luc Melenchon at 20 percent, anything can happen tomorrow,” said Clement.

Le Pen leads the far-right Front National party and Melenchon represents the far-left.

Advisers shrug off such criticism.

“He (Macron) says Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande’s big mistake has been to try to mother the French,” one top adviser said, referring to the previous two presidents.

“You have to accept the paternal side of the office, with all the unpopularity that it implies. Because a father is also a hated figure.”

(Writing by Michel Rose; additional reporting by John Irish, Noah Barkin, Emmanuel Jarry, Elizabeth Pineau; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

Iran says could remain in nuclear deal if its interests guaranteed: TV

FILE PHOTO: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a meeting with Muslim leaders and scholars in Hyderabad, India, February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui/File Photo

By Parisa Hafezi

ANKARA (Reuters) – President Hassan Rouhani hinted on Monday that Iran could remain in its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers even if the United States dropped out but Tehran would fiercely resist U.S. pressure to limit its influence in the Middle East.

U.S. President Donald Trump, a long-time critic of the deal reached between Iran and six powers in 2015 before he took office, has threatened to pull out by not extending sanctions waivers when they expire on May 12, unless European signatories of the accord fix what he calls its “flaws”.

Under the agreement with the United States, France, Germany, Britain, Russia and China, Iran strictly limited uranium enrichment capacity to satisfy the powers that it could not be used to develop atomic bombs. In exchange, Iran received relief from sanctions, most of which were rescinded in January 2016.

Rouhani said the Islamic Republic had been preparing for every possible scenario, including a deal without Washington – which would still include the other signatories that remain committed to it – or no deal at all.

“We are not worried about America’s cruel decisions … We are prepared for all scenarios and no change will occur in our lives next week,” Rouhani said in a speech broadcast live on state TV.

“If we can get what we want from a deal without America, then Iran will continue to remain committed to the deal. What Iran wants is our interests to be guaranteed by its non-American signatories … In that case, getting rid of America’s mischievous presence will be fine for Iran.”

“If they want to make sure that we are not after a nuclear bomb, we have said repeatedly that we are not and we will not be,” said Rouhani, who engineered the nuclear accord to ease Iran’s isolation.

“But if they want to weaken Iran and limit its influence whether in the region or globally, Iran will fiercely resist.”

Tehran has made repeated threats to walk away if Trump does, but several Iranian officials told Reuters last week that as long as Tehran was not excluded from the global financial and trading system, it could consider respecting the accord.

Diplomats say Tehran would rather the deal remain intact out of concern about a revival of domestic unrest over economic hardships that mounted over the years sanctions were in place.

EUROPEAN POWERS VOW TO UPHOLD DEAL

Britain, France and Germany remain committed to the accord and, in an effort to address U.S. complaints, want to open talks on Iran’s ballistic missile program, its nuclear activities beyond 2025 – when pivotal provisions of the deal expire – and its role in the wars in Syria and Yemen.

Whatever Trump decides, France, Britain and Germany will stick to the deal because it is the best way to stop Iran developing a nuclear bomb, French Foreign Minister Yean-Yves Le Drian said on Monday after meeting his German counterpart.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the deal, which is being policed by U.N. nuclear inspectors, “makes the world safer”, and would do everything possible to uphold it.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, now in Washington for talks, said the deal had weaknesses but these could be remedied. “…At this moment Britain is working alongside the Trump administration and our French and German allies to ensure that they are,” he said in a commentary in the New York Times.

“I am sure of one thing: every available alternative is worse. The wisest course would be to improve the handcuffs rather than break them.”

Even if Trump rejects a possible remedy being worked out by U.S. and European officials and decides to bring back sanctions, the most drastic U.S. measures targeting Iran’s oil sales will not immediately resume.

There are at least two avenues potentially offering more time for talks after May 12.

The agreement has a dispute resolution clause that provides at least 35 days to consider a claim that any party has violated its terms. That can be extended if all parties agree.

And if Trump restores the core U.S. sanctions, under U.S. law he must wait at least 180 days before reimposing penalties on banks of nations that do not slash purchases of Iranian oil.

Iran’s clerical rulers have repeatedly ruled out reducing its sway across the region, as demanded by the United States and its European allies. Tehran says its missile capabilities are purely defensive and nuclear ambitions only civilian in nature.

The U.N. nuclear watchdog says it is maintaining the “world’s most robust verification regime” in Iran and has repeatedly said Tehran is complying with the deal terms.

(Additional reporting by John Irish, Michelle Martin and Joseph Nasr in Berlin, Michael Holden in London; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Far-left anarchists smash windows in Paris during May Day rally

A masked protester walks near a car that burns outside a Renault automobile garage during clashes during the May Day labour union march in Paris, France, May 1, 2018. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

PARIS (Reuters) – Hundreds of hooded protesters held up an annual May Day demonstration in eastern Paris on Tuesday, with some smashing the windows of a McDonald’s restaurant and hurling petrol bombs inside, Reuters television images showed.

French police warned on Monday of possible clashes with far-left anarchist groups, known as Black Blocs, after a call on social media for a “Revolutionary Day”.

Authorities said some 1,200 hooded and masked protesters had turned up on the sidelines of Tuesday’s planned demonstration by labor unions.

People hold a banner which reads, "Students, Employees. Everyone in the Street. General Strike" during the traditional May Day labour union march in Paris, France, May 1, 2018. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

People hold a banner which reads, “Students, Employees. Everyone in the Street. General Strike” during the traditional May Day labour union march in Paris, France, May 1, 2018. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

Images also showed the smashed windows of a Renault garage on a road near the Austerlitz station and a construction vehicle in flames.

The protesters moved towards riot police chanting anti-fascist slogans, waving Soviet flags and anti-government banners and throwing firecrackers. Some started to build barricades. The police used water cannon against some of the protesters.

President Emmanuel Macron, elected last May on a promise to shake up France’s creaking economy and spur jobs growth, is locked in a battle with the trade unions over his plans to liberalize labor regulations.

Railway staff have begun three months of nationwide rolling strikes in a dispute over the government’s planned overhaul of state-run railway SNCF.

(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Gareth Jones)

France’s Macron visits Trump as Iran nuclear deal hangs in balance

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump meets French President Emmanuel Macron in New York, U.S., September 18, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – French President Emmanuel Macron arrives in Washington on Monday for a state visit likely to be dominated by differences over trade and the nuclear accord with Iran.

As Macron headed west, the Iranian government urged European leaders to convince U.S. President Donald Trump not to tear up the 2015 deal between Tehran and six world powers. Allies also spoke out in support of it.

Macron said on Sunday there was no “Plan B” for keeping a lid on Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

He is on something of a rescue mission for what is formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which Trump has said he will scrap unless European allies fix what he called “terrible flaws” by mid-May.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called on European leaders to support it.

“It is either all or nothing. European leaders should encourage Trump not just to stay in the nuclear deal, but more important to begin implementing his part of the bargain in good faith,” Zarif wrote on his Twitter account.

The deal reached between six powers – all of whom but Germany are nuclear-armed – and Tehran put curbs on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

Macron said on Fox News Sunday that it would be better to protect the deal instead of to get rid of it as there was no other plan.

“Is this agreement perfect and this JCPOA a perfect thing for our relationship with Iran?  No. But for nuclear — what do you have? As a better option? I don’t see it,” he said.

CHARM OFFENSIVE

Macron’s visit is the first time Trump has hosted a state visit since he took power in January 2017. While the French leader has tried to develop a close relationship with Trump since he took office in May, he has so far seen little tangible results on issues from Iran to climate politics.

The two men will get a sense of their two countries’ shared history during an evening meal on Monday night at Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington, the first U.S. president and Revolutionary War commander whose alliance with France was critical to victory over the British.

Working meetings will be held at the White House on Tuesday before Macron addresses Congress the following day, the anniversary of the day that French General Charles de Gaulle addressed a Joint Session of Congress in 1960.

Trump and the 40-year-old French leader began their friendship a year ago in Belgium with a jaw-clenching handshake. While some other European leaders have kept a certain distance from Trump, Macron has worked hard to remain close to the U.S. president and the two leaders speak frequently by phone.

TRADE TALKS

Highlighting the difficulties Macron will face reversing Trump’s mind on Iran, U.S. non-proliferation envoy Christopher Ford said Tehran presented a very real long-term challenge.

“Iran (is) a country that for years illegally and secretly sought to develop nuclear weapons, suspended its weaponization work only when confronted by the potentially direst of consequences without ever coming clean about its illicit endeavors,” he told a non-proliferation conference in Geneva.

Iran has long maintained that its nuclear programme was for peaceful purposes.

Macron also wants to persuade Trump to exempt European nations from metal tariffs that are part of the U.S. president’s plan to reduce chronic trade deficits with countries around the world, chiefly China.

His visit comes at a time of mounting alarm in Europe over the knock-on effect that U.S. sanctions on Russia will have on their own manufacturing industries.

French officials said Paris and other European governments were coordinating efforts to persuade Trump to ease sanctions on Russia, including measures against Russian aluminum producers.

“There are concerns raised by the extraterritoriality effects of the new sets of sanctions,” a French finance ministry source said. “Europeans…have jointly warned the US Administration about the economic impact and consequences and the need to find solutions.”

The official said France, Germany, Italy and Ireland were working together on the matter. German Chancellor Angela Merkel will hold talks with Trump in Washington later in the week.

Macron and Trump are also due to discuss Syria, less than two weeks after the United States, France and Britain launched airstrikes in Syria in retaliation for a suspected chemical weapons attack that killed dozens in Douma, Syria.

Macron said last week that he believed he had persuaded Trump to keep U.S. troops in Syria, though Trump has been insistent on bringing them home.

(Reporting By Steve Holland in Washington, Michel Rose and Richard Lough in Paris, Tom Miles in Geneva and Parisa Hafezi in Ankara; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

“We saw corpses in the street”: Syrian activist recounts Douma attack

Limar and Masa al-Qari, child survivors of the suspected poison gas attack, walk outside a tent for the displaced, in the Northern Aleppo countryside, Syria April 17, 2018. Picture taken April 17, 2018. REUTERS/Mahmoud Hassano

By Dahlia Nehme

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Muayad al-Dirani was at a medical center in the Syrian town of Douma the night of April 7, when patients started flowing in.

Many of them were suffocating or having seizures, after a suspected poison gas attack struck the rebel enclave.

Doctors hurried to undress victims, douse them in water, and give atropine injections, he said. But they could not keep up. “Everyone lost their nerves, felt helpless and didn’t know what to do,” Dirani said. “The aircraft was still in the sky.”

Rasha Edlibi, a survivor of the suspected poison gas attack, sits with her two daughters inside a tent for the displaced, in the Northern Aleppo countryside, Syria April 17, 2018. Picture taken April 17, 2018. REUTERS/Mahmoud Hassano

Rasha Edlibi, a survivor of the suspected poison gas attack, sits with her two daughters inside a tent for the displaced, in the Northern Aleppo countryside, Syria April 17, 2018. Picture taken April 17, 2018. REUTERS/Mahmoud Hassano

Rasha Edlibi, a survivor of the attack, said the gas left her unable to breathe and made her eyes well up with tears.

“We were in the basement, around dinner time, when there was a lot of bombardment, and we felt a very, very strong chlorine smell,” she said. “Before I knew it, my husband was carrying me to a (medical) point. I woke up to them throwing water on me.”

The medics were already working at full capacity after weeks of army artillery and air strikes, said Dirani, 20, a photographer who was working to document the victims of attacks during the conflict.

He grabbed his camera, put on a face mask, and ran with emergency workers to the nearby site of the attack, he said.

“On the way, we saw corpses in the street…They had tried to flee and didn’t make it.”

Medical relief groups say dozens of men, women, and children were gassed to death in Douma that night. Damascus and its key ally Moscow have dismissed the reports of a chemical attack.

The United States, France, and Britain launched missile strikes on Saturday over the suspected chemical attack, the first coordinated direct Western military action against President Bashar al-Assad in seven years of war.

The suspected gas attack took place during the final days of a government offensive on Douma, the last town to hold out in the eastern Ghouta enclave that the army has recaptured since February.

Dirani spoke to Reuters in a telephone interview from rebel territory in northern Syria, where thousands of insurgent fighters and civilians from Douma were sent in an evacuation under a surrender deal with the government.

Dirani said when he reached the site of the attack, he found nearly 30 bodies on the ground floor, and a few others on the first. Their eyes were open and foam had come out of their mouths, he said.

“There was no place for us to walk…They looked terrifying.”

He stopped taking pictures of the victims and rushed outside to get first aid, after his eyes burnt and his breath got short. Dirani said he was also coughing and felt a pain at the bottom of his stomach.

“The scenes I saw do not leave my mind, and they will never be erased from my memory,” he said.

He recalled the sight of a child twitching on the floor, being sprayed with water and being given oxygen. We were “waiting for him to get better or die”, he said.

“Everyone was crying, the medical staff were crying and I was also, and we couldn’t do anything.”

Rescue workers went out the next morning to look for more bodies, and people buried the dead a few days later.

Douma is located in the Ghouta region near Damascus where three towns were hit in a nerve gas attack that killed hundreds of people in 2013.

Edlibi said one of her two young daughters “turned blue right away” because she already had lung problems from previous shelling. She spoke to Reuters at a camp for the displaced in rebel-held territory in northern Syria.

“I still have trouble breathing till now and the headache is not going away,” she said.

(Editing by Ellen Francis, Tom Perry and Peter Graff)

Syria chemical weapons visit postponed after gunfire: sources

The United Nation vehicle carrying the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) inspectors is seen in Damascus, Syria April 17, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

By Anthony Deutsch

THE HAGUE (Reuters) – The arrival of international chemical weapons inspectors at the location of a suspected poison gas attack in the Syrian town of Douma has been delayed after gunfire at the site during a visit by a U.N. security team on Tuesday, sources told Reuters.

The U.N. security team entered Douma to assess the situation ahead of the planned visit by inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), said the sources, who had been briefed on the team’s deployment.

The OPCW inspectors are in Syria to investigate an April 7 incident in which Western countries and rescue workers say scores of civilians were gassed to death by government forces, which Damascus denies.

The United States, Britain and France fired missiles at three Syrian targets on Saturday to punish President Bashar al-Assad for the suspected chemical attack, the first coordinated Western action against Assad in seven years of war.

The U.S.-led intervention has threatened to escalate confrontation between the West and Assad’s backer Russia, although it has had no impact on the fighting on the ground, in which pro-government forces have pressed on with a campaign to crush the rebellion.

Assad is now in his strongest position since the early months of a civil war that has killed more than 500,000 people and driven more than half of Syrians from their homes.

DELAY CAUSES DISPUTE

A delay in the arrival of the inspectors at the Douma site has become a source of diplomatic dispute, because Western countries accuse Damascus and Moscow of hindering the mission. The United States and France have both said they believe the delay could be used to destroy evidence of the poison attack.

Russia and Syria deny using poison gas, hindering the investigation or tampering with evidence.

One source told Reuters the advance team had “encountered a security issue” during the visit to Douma, including gunfire which led to the delay. The source could not provide additional details. Another said the advance team had left after being met by protesters who demanded aid and hearing gunfire.

An official close to the Syrian government said the U.N. security team had been met by protesters demonstrating against the U.S.-led strikes, but did not mention any shooting. “It was a message from the people,” said the official. The mission “will continue its work”, the official said.

Douma was the last town to hold out in the besieged eastern Ghouta enclave, the last big rebel bastion near the capital Damascus, which was captured by a government advance over the past two months. The last rebels abandoned the town on Saturday, hours after the U.S.-led missile strikes, leaving government forces in control of the site of the suspected chemical attack.

Syria’s U.N. ambassador said on Tuesday the fact-finding mission would begin its work in Douma on Wednesday if the U.N. security team deemed the situation there safe.

A U.N. source said the OPCW inspectors would probably not be going to Douma on Wednesday. The U.N. source did not give details of the shooting incident. The source did not say when the inspectors might visit the site, or whether a planned visit to Douma on Wednesday had been postponed.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch in The Hague, Laila Bassam, Tom Perry and Ellen Francis in Beirut; Writing by Ellen Francis/Tom Perry in Beirut; Editing by Angus MacSwan, Raissa Kasolowsky and Peter Graff)