Whole of Iran on coronavirus red alert due to rise in deaths, health official says

(Reuters) – A senior Iranian health official has declared a coronavirus red alert covering the entire country as daily deaths and cases increase at an alarming rate, Iranian state TV reported on Friday.

Iran, one of the Middle Eastern countries hardest hit by the pandemic, has been divided up into white, orange/yellow and red regions based on the number of infections and deaths.

The death toll rose by 144 to 23,952 on Friday, while the total number of identified cases spiked by 3,049 to 416,198, health ministry spokeswoman Sima Sadat Lari said on television.

“The color classification doesn’t make sense anymore. We no longer have orange and yellow. The entire country is red,” deputy health minister Iraj Harirchi said on television.

“If the current course continues, the death toll will reach 45,000,” he added, without giving a time frame.

In the northwestern city of Tabriz, for instance, the number of hospitalized patients had jumped from under 40 a day to 160, and in the Shi’ite Muslim holy city of Qom it had increased from 10 a day to 160, Harirchi said, again without providing a time period for the increases.

He said only a 95% use of masks and a 50% fall in gatherings could reduce the death toll.

(Editing by Hugh Lawson, London Editing Desk)

U.N. war crimes experts urge Turkey to rein in rebels in Syria

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Turkey must rein in Syrian rebels it supports in northern Syria who may have carried out kidnappings, torture and looting of civilian property, United Nations war crimes investigators said on Tuesday.

The panel also said transfers of Syrian nationals detained by the opposition Syrian National Army to Turkish territory for prosecution may amount to the war crime of unlawful deportation.

In a report covering the first half of 2020, the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria said assassinations and rapes of civilians by all sides, marked by “sectarian undertones”, were on the rise in the conflict that began in 2011.

“In Afrin, Ras al Ain and the surrounding areas, the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army may have committed the war crimes of hostage-taking, cruel treatment, torture and rape,” panel chair Paulo Pinheiro told a news briefing.

“Turkey should act to prevent these abuses and ensure the protection of civilians in the areas under its control,” he said.

Turkey’s Defense Ministry says it goes to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties during military operations in Syria.

Ankara and Moscow back opposing sides in Syria. Russia, along with Iran, supports President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and Turkey backs rebels trying to oust him. Turkey seized control of the border town of Ras al Ain last year in an offensive to push back Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters, which Ankara views as a terrorist group.

Turkey wields influence as it funded, trained and allowed the rebel force known as the Syrian National Army to enter Syria from Turkey, panelist Hanny Megally said.

“Whilst we can’t say Turkey is in charge of them and issues orders and has command control over them, we think that it could use its influence much more to bring them into check and certainly to pressure them to desist from the violations being committed and to investigate them,” he said.

Investigations carried out so far by the Syrian National Army are insufficient, even as violations increase, he added.

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

After UAE and Bahrain deals, is Saudi Arabia softening its stance on Israel?

By Marwa Rashad and Aziz El Yaakoubi

RIYADH/DUBAI (Reuters) – When one of Saudi Arabia’s leading clerics called this month for Muslims to avoid “passionate emotions and fiery enthusiasm” towards Jews, it was a marked change in tone for someone who has shed tears preaching about Palestine in the past.

The sermon by Abdulrahman al-Sudais, imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, broadcast on Saudi state television on Sept. 5, came three weeks after the United Arab Emirates agreed a historic deal to normalize relations with Israel and days before the Gulf state of Bahrain, a close Saudi ally, followed suit.

Sudais, who in past sermons prayed for Palestinians to have victory over the “invader and aggressor” Jews, spoke about how the Prophet Mohammad was good to his Jewish neighbor and argued the best way to persuade Jews to convert to Islam was to “treat them well”.

While Saudi Arabia is not expected to follow the example of its Gulf allies any time soon, Sudais’ remarks could be a clue to how the kingdom approaches the sensitive subject of warming to Israel – a once inconceivable prospect. Appointed by the king, he is one of the country’s most influential figures, reflecting the views of its conservative religious establishment as well as the Royal Court.

The dramatic agreements with the UAE and Bahrain were a coup for Israel and U.S. President Donald Trump.  But the big diplomatic prize for an Israel deal would be Saudi Arabia, whose king is the Custodian of Islam’s holiest sites, and rules the world’s largest oil exporter.

Marc Owen Jones, an academic from the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, said the UAE and Bahrain’s normalization has allowed Saudi Arabia to test public opinion, but a formal deal with Israel would be a “large task” for the kingdom.

“Giving the Saudis a ‘nudge’ via an influential imam is obviously one step in trying to test the public reaction and to encourage the notion of normalization,” Jones added.

In Washington, a State Department official said the United States was encouraged by warming ties between Israel and Gulf Arab countries, viewed this trend as a positive development and “we are engaging to build on it.”

There was no immediate response to a request by Reuters for comment from the Saudi government’s media office.

Sudais’ plea to shun intense feelings is a far cry from his past when he wept dozens of times while praying for Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque – Islam’s third-holiest site.

The Sept. 5 sermon drew a mixed reaction, with some Saudis defending him as simply communicating the teachings of Islam. Others on Twitter, mostly Saudis abroad and apparently critical of the government, called it “the normalization sermon”.

Ali al-Suliman, one of several Saudis interviewed at one of Riyadh’s malls by Reuters TV, said in reaction to the Bahrain deal that normalization with Israel by other Gulf states or in the wider Middle East was hard to get used to, as “Israel is an occupying nation and drove Palestinians out of their homes”.

MUTUAL FEAR OF IRAN

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de-facto ruler often referred to as MbS, has promised to promote interfaith dialogue as part of his domestic reform. The young prince previously stated that Israelis are entitled to live peacefully on their own land on condition of a peace agreement that assures stability for all sides.

Saudi Arabia and Israel’s mutual fear of Iran may be a key driver for the development of ties.

There have been other signs that Saudi Arabia, one of the most influential countries in the Middle East, is preparing its people to eventually warm to Israel.

A period drama, “Umm Haroun” that aired during Ramadan in April on Saudi-controlled MBC television, a time when viewership typically spikes, centered around the trials of a Jewish midwife.

The fictional series was about a multi-religious community in an unspecified Gulf Arab state in the 1930’s to 1950’s. The show drew criticism from the Palestinian Hamas group, saying it portrayed Jews in a sympathetic light.

At the time, MBC said that the show was the top-rated Gulf drama in Saudi Arabia in Ramadan. The show’s writers, both Bahraini, told Reuters it had no political message.

But experts and diplomats said it was another indication of shifting public discourse on Israel.

Earlier this year, Mohammed al-Aissa, a former Saudi minister and the general secretary of the Muslim World League, visited Auschwitz. In June, he took part in a conference organised by the American Jewish Committee, where he called for a world without “Islamophobia and anti-Semitism”.

“Certainly, MbS is intent on moderating state-sanctioned messages shared by the clerical establishment and part of that will likely work towards justifying any future deal with Israel, which would have seemed unthinkable before,” said Neil Quilliam, associate fellow with Chatham House.

ISOLATED PALESTINIANS

Normalization between the UAE, Bahrain and Israel, which will be signed at the White House on Tuesday, has further isolated the Palestinians.

Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, has not directly addressed Israel’s deals with the UAE and Bahrain, but said it remains committed to peace on the basis of the long-standing Arab Peace Initiative.

How, or whether, the kingdom would seek to exchange normalization for a deal on those terms remains unclear.

That initiative offers normalized ties in return for a statehood deal with the Palestinians and full Israeli withdrawal from territories captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

However, in another eye-catching gesture of goodwill, the kingdom has allowed Israel-UAE flights to use its airspace. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, who has a close relationship with MbS, praised the move last week.

A diplomat in the Gulf said that for Saudi Arabia, the issue is more related to what he called its religious position as the leader of the Muslim world, and that a formal deal with Israel would take time and is unlikely to happen while King Salman is still in power.

“Any normalization by Saudi will open doors for Iran, Qatar and Turkey to call for internationalizing the two holy mosques,” he said, referring to periodic calls by critics of Riyadh to have Mecca and Medina placed under international supervision.

(Additional reporting by Davide Barbuscia, Alexander Cornwell in Dubai and Humeyra Pamuk in Washington; editing by Maha El Dahan, Michael Georgy and William Maclean)

Pompeo says Trump administration eager for end to Gulf rift

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pressed on Monday for a solution to the three-year rift between the Gulf state of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, saying the Trump administration was eager to see it resolved.

Speaking at a State Department meeting with Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, Pompeo said it was important to concentrate on countering Iranian activity in the Middle East.

“To keep our focus on this work and to close the door to increased Iranian meddling, it’s past time to find a solution to the Gulf rift,” Pompeo said.

“The Trump administration is eager to see this dispute resolved and to reopen Qatar’s air and land borders currently blocked by other Gulf states. I look forward to progress on this issue.”

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut diplomatic and trade links with Qatar in June 2017, accusing it of backing terrorism. Qatar denies the charge and has accused its neighbors of seeking to curtail its sovereignty.

Kuwait and the United States have tried to mediate the rift, which has undermined Washington’s efforts to confront Iran, which is struggling for regional supremacy with Saudi Arabia.

The boycotting nations have set 13 demands for lifting the boycott, including closing Al Jazeera television, shuttering a Turkish military base, reducing ties with Iran and cutting links to the Muslim Brotherhood.

The State Department’s top diplomat for the Middle East, David Schenker, said last week there could be some progress within weeks in resolving the rift, citing signs of “flexibility” in negotiations.

With Trump’s facing re-election on Nov. 3, he is eager to show foreign policy successes in the Middle East, and last month the UAE agreed to normalize ties with Israel under a U.S.-brokered deal scheduled to be signed at a White House ceremony on Tuesday. Bahrain joined the UAE in agreeing to normalize relations with Israel on Friday.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom and Daphne Psaledakis; Editing by Tom Brown)

Iran’s Rouhani: Talks possible if U.S. returns to 2015 nuclear deal

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) – If the United States wants an agreement with Iran, it must first come back to Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with six powers that Washington abandoned two years ago, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Tuesday.

“Washington’s maximum pressure policy on Iran has failed 100%…If Washington wants an agreement with us, then they should apologize for exiting the deal and return to it,” Rouhani told a televised news conference.

Long-tense relations between the two adversaries have almost come to blows since 2018 when U.S. President Donald Trump ditched the deal reached by his predecessor Barack Obama and reimposed sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy.

In response to what Washington calls its “maximum pressure” campaign to force Iran to negotiate a new deal, Tehran has breached key limits on nuclear activity imposed by the 2015 accord, under which the Islamic Republic accepted curbs on its uranium enrichment program in return for relief from sanctions.

Trump has pledged to strike a new deal – under which he would seek stricter limits on enrichment, an end to Tehran’s ballistic missile program and involvement in various Middle East conflicts – within weeks if he wins re-election in November.

“Trump has been talking a lot … The next president, whether it is Trump or someone else, must adopt a different approach towards Iran,” Rouhani said.

In response to U.S. sanctions, Tehran has breached key limits on nuclear activity imposed by the 2015 accord.

Last week the United States moved to reinstate global U.N. sanctions on Iran, including an arms embargo, arguing Tehran was in violation of the 2015 nuclear deal even though Washington itself abandoned that agreement two years ago.

Council members France, Britain and Germany (E3), which along with Russia and China remain in the accord, have dismissed the move as void given Washington’s departure from the deal and said it was harming efforts to restrain Iran’s nuclear activity.

But France’s foreign minister, echoing the stance of Britain and Germany, told his Iranian counterpart that Paris was worried about the impact of the arms embargo expiring in October.

“The minister reiterated our concern about Iran’s destabilizing activities and the consequences of the expiration of the…embargo on conventional arms, and told him of the E3’s determination to seek solutions preserving security and regional stability,” ministry deputy spokesman Francois Delmas said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, Iran’s arch-enemy in the Middle East, urged Britain to join the U.S. bid to reimpose U.N. sanctions during a visit by British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to Jerusalem.

“Look at Iran’s aggression today, without a nuclear weapon. What a huge danger Iran would be to the entire world if it did get a nuclear weapon,” Netanyahu told Raab, according to a statement released by the premier’s office.

Iran has repeatedly denied seeking nuclear weapons.

(Reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Dubai, John Irish in Paris and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Iraq is open for U.S. business, prime minister says; Trump eyes oil prospects

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Thursday said U.S. companies were involved in many prospects in Iraq’s oil business, as Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi declared his country open for American business and investment.

Trump told reporters before a meeting with the Iraqi leader that the U.S. military had very few troops in Iraq and looked forward to the day when it did not have to be there, but would help the country if neighboring Iran should do anything.

Al-Kadhimi took office in April, becoming the third Iraq head of state in a chaotic 10-week period that followed months of deadly protests in the country, which has been exhausted by decades of sanctions, war, corruption and economic challenges.

The meeting comes amid a new spike in tensions between the United States and Iran after Washington said it would move to reinstate all U.S. sanctions on Iran at the United Nations.

Washington is pushing to extend a U.N.-imposed arms embargo against Iran that is due to expire in October under Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. Trump withdrew the United States from the deal in 2018 and reimposed crippling sanctions on Iran.

Five U.S. firms, including Chevron Corp, signed agreements on Wednesday with the Iraqi government aimed at boosting Iraq’s energy independence from Iran.

The U.S. Department of Energy said in a statement that Honeywell International Inc, Baker Hughes Co, General Electric Co, Stellar Energy and Chevron signed commercial agreements worth as much as $8 billion with the Iraqi ministers of oil and electricity.

The agreements were signed following a meeting of the Iraqi ministers with U.S. Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette, as well as a roundtable in Washington on Wednesday with the Iraqi prime minister and the U.S. energy industry.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason; writing by Andrea Shalal; editing by Diane Craft and Dan Grebler)

Pompeo likely to visit U.N. on Thursday in pursuit of sanctions on Iran: diplomats

By Michelle Nichols

NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will likely travel to New York on Thursday to seek a return of all U.N. sanctions on Iran and meet with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, diplomats and a U.N. official said.

To trigger a return of the sanctions, the United States will submit a complaint to the 15-member U.N. Security Council about Iran’s non-compliance with the nuclear deal, even though Washington quit the accord in 2018.

Pompeo will likely meet with Indonesia’s U.N. Ambassador Dian Triansyah Djani, the Security Council president for August, to submit the complaint, diplomats said. Pompeo is also due to meet with Guterres, a U.N. official said.

In response to what the United States calls its “maximum pressure” campaign – a bid to get Iran to negotiate a new deal – Tehran has breached several central limits of the 2015 deal, including on its stock of enriched uranium.

But diplomats say the sanctions snapback process will be tough and messy as Russia, China and other countries on the Security Council challenge the legality of the U.S. move given that Washington itself is no longer complying with what Trump called the “worst deal ever” and has imposed unilateral sanctions on Iran.

The United States had threatened to use the sanctions snapback provision in the nuclear deal after it lost a bid in the Security Council on Friday to extend an arms embargo on Tehran, which is due to expire in October.

Once Washington submits its complaint about Iran to the Security Council, the body has 30 days to adopt a resolution to extend sanctions relief for Tehran or else the measures will automatically snapback. Any attempt to extend the sanctions relief would be vetoed by the United States.

The U.S. mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

Sudan confirms ‘contacts’ with Israel, says UAE move is ‘brave’

An Israeli flag is seen near the Dome of the Rock, located in Jerusalem's Old City on the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount December 6, 2017.

By Khalid Abdelaziz

KHARTOUM (Reuters) – Sudan on Tuesday confirmed having contacts with Israel, saying the United Arab Emirates’ decision to normalize relations with Israel is “a brave and bold step”, according to its foreign ministry spokesman.

Under the U.S.-brokered deal announced last week, the UAE becomes just the third Arab country to forge full relations with Israel in more than 70 years. The pact could reshape Middle East politics from the Palestinian issue to the fight against Iran.

In February, Israeli officials said Israel and Sudan had agreed to move towards forging normal relations for the first time during a meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of Sudan’s military-led, transitional sovereign council, in Uganda.

“The Emirates’ move is a brave and bold step and contributes to putting the Arab world on the right track to build peace in the region and to build sustainable peace,” Sudanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Haydar Sadig told Reuters by phone on Tuesday, confirming remarks made earlier to regional media.

“I cannot deny that there are contacts between Sudan and Israel,” he added.

Netanyahu welcomed the remarks, saying on Twitter: “Israel, Sudan and the entire region will benefit from the peace agreement (with the UAE), and together can build a better future for all people in the region. We will do whatever is necessary to turn this vision into a reality.”

Back in February, Burhan confirmed the meeting with Netanyahu but cast doubt on any rapid normalization of ties, saying Sudan’s stance on the Palestinian issue remains unchanged, and that relations between the two countries was the responsibility of the civilian cabinet in Khartoum.

Scores of Sudanese protesters condemned Burhan’s meeting with Netanyahu in February. Under the long rule of Islamist strongman Omar al-Bashir until his fall in a popular uprising in 2019, Khartoum counted among hardline Muslim foes of Israel.

Sadig said any normalization of relations with Israel would not be at the expense of “Sudan’s moral values and independence” and be “according to Sudan’s interests”.

“We will not accept unequal relations with Israel.”

Israel says it expects other Gulf Arab countries and Muslim nations in Africa to follow in normalizing ties after its breakthrough with the UAE.

(Aditional reporting Rami Ayyub in Jerusalem; Writing by Mahmoud Mourad; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Israel’s president invites UAE’s de facto leader to Jerusalem

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s president on Monday invited the United Arab Emirates’ de facto leader to visit Jerusalem, praising his role in achieving a “noble and courageous” deal to normalize relations between Israel and the UAE.

Both countries announced on Thursday they would forge formal ties under a U.S.-sponsored deal whose implementation could recast Middle East politics ranging from the Palestinian issue to dealing with Iran, the common foe of Israel and Gulf Arabs.

The deal drew anger and dismay in much of the Arab world and Iran but a quiet welcome in the Gulf.

“In these fateful days, leadership is measured by its courage and ability to be groundbreaking and far-sighted,” Israeli President Reuven Rivlin wrote in a letter to Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi.

“I have no doubt that future generations will appreciate the way you, the brave and wise leaders, have restarted the discourse on peace, trust, dialogue between peoples and religions, cooperation and a promising future,” Rivlin wrote.

“On behalf of the people of Israel and (me) personally, I take this opportunity to extend an invitation to Your Highness to visit Israel and Jerusalem and be our honored guest,” Rivlin said in the letter, which his spokesman released publicly.

The Palestinians have called the deal a “betrayal” by an Arab country that they have long looked to for support in establishing a state in Gaza, East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank, lands Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

“I am hopeful,” Rivlin’s letter went on, “that this step will help build and strengthen the trust between us and the peoples of the region, a trust that will promote understanding between us all.

“Such trust, as demonstrated in the noble and courageous act, will set our region forward, bring economic well-being and provide prosperity and stability to the people of the Middle East as a whole.”

Palestine Liberation Organization official Wassel Abu Youssef condemned Rivlin’s invitation, saying “the visit of any Arab official to Jerusalem through the gate of normalization is rejected.”

Any such top-level Arab visit could be politically explosive given Jerusalem’s internationally disputed status.

Israel seized the eastern part of the city in 1967 and annexed it in a move that has not won world recognition. It considers all of Jerusalem its capital. Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be the capital of the state they seek.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller with additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Rockets land near Baghdad airport after week of anti-U.S. attacks

GENEVA, Switzerland (Reuters) – Three rockets landed in the vicinity of Baghdad airport near a military base in the complex that houses U.S. forces, the Iraqi military said, after one of the busiest weeks of attacks against U.S. targets in Iraq for months.

The incident caused no casualties, the military said.

It followed at least five attacks directed at U.S. interests in Iraq this week, including four blasts against convoys carrying supplies to bases housing U.S. forces, a rocket attack on an air base north of Baghdad and a rocket attack near the U.S. Embassy in the capital.

Washington blames such attacks on Iranian-backed militia groups. Iran has not directly commented on the incidents but little-known groups believed to be connected to Iran-aligned militias have claimed some attacks.

Friday’s attack took place as Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi prepares to travel to the United States for talks about Iraq’s future strategic relationship with Washington.

It also comes after Israel and the United Arab Emirates, two regional opponents of Iran, announced they would normalize diplomatic ties, a move that some commentators say provides a fresh challenge to Iran’s power in the Middle East.

Iraq, where U.S.-Iran tensions have often spilled over into violence, seeks to avoid being drawn into any regional conflagration.

The Middle East came close to a full conflict in January after a U.S. drone strike killed the Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis at Baghdad airport.

Iran-aligned militias have sworn to avenge their deaths.

The militias see Kadhimi as having firmly sided with the United States since he took office in May, after he ordered an arrest raid against one powerful Iran-aligned group and has indicated he wants to rein in the paramilitaries.

(Reporting by John Davison; Editing by Chris Reese and Angus MacSwan)