Successor to slain Iran general faces same fate if he kills Americans – U.S. envoy

By Nafisa Eltahir

DUBAI (Reuters) – The successor to the Iranian commander killed in a U.S. drone strike would suffer the same fate if he followed a similar path by killing Americans, the U.S. special representative for Iran said, according to Asharq al-Awsat newspaper.

Washington blamed Qassem Soleimani for masterminding attacks by Iran-aligned militias against U.S. forces in the region. U.S. President Donald Trump ordered the Jan. 3 drone strike in Iraq after an escalation that began in December with missile strikes that killed an American contractor, which Washington blamed on an Iran-aligned militia in Iraq.

Iran responded to the killing of Soleimani by launching missiles at U.S. targets in Iraq on Jan. 8, although no U.S. soldiers were killed.

After Soleimani’s death, Tehran swiftly appointed Esmail Ghaani as the new head of the Quds Force, an elite unit in the Revolutionary Guards that handles actions abroad. Ghaani has pledged to pursue Soleimani’s course.

“If (Esmail) Ghaani follows the same path of killing Americans then he will meet the same fate,” U.S. envoy Brian Hook told the Arabic-language daily Asharq al-Awsat.

He said in the interview in Davos that Trump had long made it clear “that any attack on Americans or American interests would be met with a decisive response.”

“This isn’t a new threat. The president has always said that he will always respond decisively to protect American interests,” Hook said. “I think the Iranian regime understands now that they cannot attack America and get away with it.”

After his appointment, Ghaani said he would “continue in this luminous path” taken by Soleimani and said the goal was to drive U.S. forces out of the region, Iran’s long stated policy.

The Revolutionary Guards aerospace commander said four U.S. military bases in the region were used to deploy aircraft and drones that played a role in the Jan. 3 attack that killed Soleimani, including two bases in Iraq and another in Kuwait.

“Most of the drones” had taken off from Kuwait, Amirali Hajizadeh, who heads the Guards’ aerospace unit, told state television, although he did not say if a drone from Kuwait was ultimately responsible for attack on Soleimani.

Tensions between Washington and Tehran have steadily increased since Trump withdrew from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers in 2018 and imposed tough news sanctions that have hammered the Iranian economy.

This month’s military flare-up began in December when rockets fired at U.S. bases in Iraq killed a U.S. contractor. Washington blamed pro-Iran militia and launched air strikes that killed at least 25 fighters. After the militia surrounded the U.S. embassy in Baghdad for two days, Trump ordered the drone strike on Soleimani.

(Reporting by Nafisa Eltahir and Parisa Hafezi; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Michael Perry and Peter Graff)

More U.S. troops leave Iraq over potential injures from missile attack

More U.S. troops leave Iraq over potential injures as Trump downplays brain risk
By Alexandra Alper and Idrees Ali

DAVOS, Switzerland/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday said he did not consider the brain injuries suffered by 11 U.S. service members in Iran’s recent attack on a base in Iraq to be serious, as the American military moved more troops out of the region for potential injuries.

In a separate statement on Wednesday, U.S. Central Command said that more troops had been flown out of Iraq to Germany for medical evaluations following Iran’s Jan. 8 missile attack on the base where U.S. forces were stationed after announcing the 11 injuries last week.

Further injuries may be identified in the future, it added, without giving further details.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said about a dozen troops were being transported to Germany.

Trump and other top officials initially said Iran’s attack had not killed or injured any U.S. service members before the Pentagon reversed course on Thursday, saying 11 U.S. troops had been treated for concussion symptoms after the attack on the Ain al-Asad air base in western Iraq.

On Wednesday, Trump declined to explain the discrepancy.

“I heard that they had headaches and a couple of other things, but I would say and I can report it is not very serious,” Trump told a news conference in Davos, Switzerland.

Asked whether he considered traumatic brain injury to be serious, Trump said: “They told me about it numerous days later. You’d have to ask the Department of Defense.”

Pentagon officials have said there had been no effort to minimize or delay information on concussive injuries, but its handling of the injuries following Tehran’s attack has renewed questions over the U.S. military’s policy regarding how it handles suspected brain injuries.

While the U.S. military has to immediately report incidents threatening life, limb or eyesight, it does not have an urgent requirement to do so with suspected traumatic brain injury, or TBI, which can take time to manifest and diagnose.

“I don’t consider them very serious injuries relative to other injuries I have seen,” Trump said. “I’ve seen people with no legs and no arms.”

Various health and medial groups for years have been trying to raise awareness about the seriousness of brain injuries, including concussions.

Such injury can cause symptoms such as memory problems, headaches, and sensitivity to light. Mood changes and possible links to mental illness are also concerns.

(Reporting by Alexandra Alper in Davos and Idrees Ali in Washington; writing by Susan Heavey; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Iran says it will quit global nuclear treaty if case goes to U.N.

By Babak Dehghanpisheh

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran said on Monday it could quit the global nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) if European countries refer it to the U.N. Security Council over a nuclear agreement, a move that would overturn diplomacy in its confrontation with the West.

The 1968 NPT has been the foundation of global nuclear arms control since the Cold War, including a 2015 deal Iran signed with world powers that offered it access to global trade in return for accepting curbs to its atomic program.

The fate of the 2015 pact has been in doubt since U.S. President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of it and reimposed sanctions. Iran has responded by scaling back its commitments, although it says it wants the pact to survive.

Britain, France and Germany declared Iran in violation of the 2015 pact last week and have launched a dispute mechanism that could eventually see the matter referred back to the Security Council and the reimposition of U.N. sanctions.

“If the Europeans continue their improper behavior or send Iran’s file to the Security Council, we will withdraw from the NPT,” Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said, according to comments carried by IRNA and other Iranian news agencies.

He also said Iran could take other steps before withdrawing from the NPT, although he did not specify them.

The nuclear dispute has been at the heart of an escalation between Washington and Tehran which blew up into military confrontation in recent weeks.

The 190-member NPT bans signatories other than the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France from acquiring nuclear weapons, in return for allowing them to pursue peaceful nuclear programs for power generation, overseen by the United Nations.

The only country ever to declare its withdrawal from the NPT was North Korea, which expelled nuclear inspectors and openly tested atomic weapons. Nuclear-armed India and Pakistan never signed up, nor did Israel, which does not say whether it has nuclear weapons but is widely presumed to have them.

The West has long accused Iran of seeking to develop nuclear arms. Tehran denies this and says its goal is to master the whole process of generating electricity from nuclear energy.

A steady escalation over Iran’s nuclear plans flared into tit-for-tat military action this month, with Trump ordering a drone strike that killed a top Iranian general, prompting Iran to fire missiles at U.S. targets in Iraq. During a state of alert, Iran shot down a Ukrainian airliner in error.

Amid that escalation – one of the biggest since Iran’s 1979 revolution – Tehran has faced mounting pressure from European states which say they want to save the 2015 nuclear deal. They have also indicated a readiness to back Trump’s call for a broader deal with Iran that goes beyond its nuclear plans.

‘MAXIMUM PRESSURE’

“Despite the ill will that we see from some European countries the door of negotiations with them has not been closed and the ball is in the court of these countries,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said.

But he also told a news conference: “I don’t think Iran is ready to negotiate under the conditions they have in mind.”

Since Washington withdrew from the deal, Trump began a policy of “maximum pressure”, saying a broader deal should be negotiated on nuclear issues, Iran’s missile program and Iranian activities in the Middle East.

U.S. sanctions have crippled Iran’s economy, slashing its oil exports. Iran has long said it would not negotiate with Washington while sanctions are in place.

Tehran has repeatedly held talks with European officials to find ways to keep the nuclear agreement alive, but has blamed the Europeans for failing to guarantee economic benefits that Iran was meant to receive in return for curbing nuclear work.

“The European powers’ claims about Iran violating the deal are unfounded,” Mousavi said. “Whether Iran will further decrease its nuclear commitments will depend on other parties and whether Iran’s interests are secured under the deal.”

In a report on a parliamentary website, Iran’s foreign minister said steps to scale back its commitments under the nuclear deal were now over.

Britain has said a “Trump deal” could replace the 2015 deal, and France has called for broad talks to end the crisis.

Iran says it cannot negotiate with Trump, who broke promises by repudiating the deal reached under his predecessor Barack Obama. Mousavi repeated Iran’s rejection of a “Trump deal”.

“The fact that a person’s name is put on an agreement shows they’re not familiar with the conditions. An agreement with a person doesn’t mean anything,” he said.

(Reporting by Parisa Hafezi and Babak Dehghanpisheh; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Peter Graff)

Explainer: How close is Iran to producing a nuclear bomb?

By Francois Murphy and Arshad Mohammed

VIENNA/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The central achievement of the Iran nuclear deal – keeping Tehran at arm’s length from nuclear weapons – is eroding.

The 2015 accord’s many restrictions on Iran’s atomic activities were built around one objective: to extend the “breakout time” Tehran would need to produce enough fissile material for one atomic bomb – if it decided to do so – to at least a year from around 2-3 months.

Iran maintains that it has never sought nuclear weapons and never would. It has long said it has enriched for civilian purposes including future nuclear energy and research projects.

Tehran began breaching the deal’s curbs last year in a step-by-step response to President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the deal in May 2018 and the reimposition of U.S. sanctions that have throttled Iran’s vital oil exports.

Those breaches have shortened the breakout time slightly, though Iran is far from sprinting ahead as fast as it could, reports by the U.N. nuclear watchdog policing the deal show.

But the breaches have been enough to prompt the European signatories to the deal to trigger its dispute resolution mechanism, raising the prospect of the global, United Nations sanctions that were lifted under the deal being reinstated.

WHAT HAS IRAN DONE?

Iran has contravened many of the deal’s core restrictions, but has said it will continue to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency and its inspectors. The deal has imposed on Iran the most intrusive nuclear verification regime of any country, and it has not backed out of that yet.

* Enriched uranium – The deal limits Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium to 202.8 kg – less than half the amount it was producing per quarter before its accord with world powers, and a small fraction of the tonnes it possessed. This was the first of Iran’s breaches last year, verified by the IAEA on July 1. The last quarterly IAEA report in November said the stockpile stood at 372.3 kg. It will have continued to increase since then.

* Enrichment level – The deal caps the fissile purity to which Iran can refine uranium to at 3.67%, far below the 20% it was achieving before the deal and the 90% that is weapons-grade. Iran breached that cap on July 8. Since then, however, its enrichment level has remained steady at up to 4.5%.

* Centrifuges – The deal only allows Iran to produce enriched uranium with about 5,000 first-generation IR-1 centrifuges at its Natanz plant. It can operate small numbers of more advanced – faster-producing, more durable and efficient – models there without accumulating enriched uranium. Iran had roughly 19,000 installed centrifuges before the deal.

The IAEA verified on Sept. 25 that Iran had begun enriching with advanced centrifuges, but in much smaller numbers than the IR-1s. Iran has brought online two 164-machine cascades of centrifuges that were dismantled under the deal, and installed smaller clusters of other models. As those come online, its production of enriched uranium is likely to increase.

The Islamic Republic has yet to breach the cap on IR-1 centrifuges at Natanz.

* Fordow – The deal bans enrichment at Fordow, a site that Iran secretly built inside a mountain and was exposed by Western intelligence services in 2009. Centrifuges are allowed there for other purposes, like producing stable isotopes https://www.iaea.org/topics/nuclear-science/isotopes/stable-isotopes. Iran began enriching there on Nov. 9 but only with a small number of IR-1s.

HOW CLOSE IS IRAN TO HAVING A BOMB NOW?

The breaches have eaten into the breakout time slightly, but estimates of the current breakout time vary. Many diplomats and nuclear experts also believe the starting point of one year is a conservative estimate.

A European diplomat who previously put the breakout time at 12 months declined to offer an estimate but said Iran’s actions were now “having a serious impact”.

Another diplomat pointed to a statement by France’s foreign minister last week that it would take Iran one to two years to get a bomb, though it was not clear if that meant the necessary fissile material or an actual weapon.

David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector and a hawk on Iran, said Tehran could within five to 10 months amass 900 kg of uranium enriched to 4.5% at its current rate. That amount, if further refined, could yield the 25 kg of weapons-grade, highly enriched uranium needed for one nuclear bomb.

WHAT MORE WOULD IRAN NEED TO DO?

Even if Iran had accumulated sufficient fissile material, it would need to assemble a bomb, probably one small enough to be carried by its ballistic missiles. How long that would take exactly is unclear, but stockpiling enough fissile material is widely seen as the biggest hurdle in producing a weapon.

Both U.S. intelligence agencies and the IAEA believe Iran once had a nuclear weapons program that it halted. There is evidence suggesting Iran obtained a design for a nuclear weapon and carried out various types of work relevant to making one.

U.S. intelligence experts, however, believe Iran has yet to demonstrate an intention to shatter the 2015 deal, three U.S. government sources said, noting Tehran continues to grant the IAEA access to its declared nuclear facilities.

(Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris, Mark Hosenball and Jonathan Landay in Washington, Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Iran can take fight beyond its borders, Khamenei says in rare sermon

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) – The Revolutionary Guards can take their fight beyond Iran’s borders, the supreme leader said on Friday, responding to the U.S. killing of his country’s most prominent commander and to anti-government unrest at home over the downing of an airliner.

In his first Friday prayers sermon in eight years, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also told thousands of Iranians who chanted “Death to America!” that European powers could not be trusted in Iran’s nuclear standoff with Washington.

Iran’s nuclear ambitions have been at the heart of a months-long crisis, which briefly erupted in January into tit-for-tat military strikes between Iran and the United States.

“Resistance must continue until the region is completely freed from the enemy’s tyranny,” Khamenei said, demanding that U.S. troops leave neighboring Iraq and the wider Middle East.

Washington’s withdrawal in 2018 from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers and the reimposition of U.S. sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy, led to the latest cycle of hostilities between Washington and Tehran, which have been at odds since the 1979 revolution toppled the U.S.-backed shah.

U.S. President Donald Trump ordered the killing in a drone strike on Jan. 3 of Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force, a unit of the Guards responsible for expanding Iran’s influence abroad. He built up regional militias that Washington has blamed for attacks on U.S. forces.

Iran responded with missile strikes on U.S. targets in Iraq on Jan. 8, injuring although not killing U.S. troops.

“The fact that Iran has the power to give such a slap to a world power shows the hand of God,” said Khamenei, in a reference to the strikes, adding that the killing of Soleimani showed Washington’s “terrorist nature”.

The Quds Force “protects oppressed nations across the region,” Khamenei said. “They are fighters without borders.”

In the tense aftermath of Iran’s missile strikes on U.S. targets when Iranian forces expected U.S. reprisals, the Guards’ air defenses shot down a Ukrainian airliner in error, killing all 176 people on board, mostly Iranians or dual nationals.

It took days for the Guards, which answer directly to Khamenei, to admit their mistake, even though a commander said he had told the authorities about the cause the same day. The delay sparked protests across Iran, sometimes meeting a violent crackdown.

‘AMERICAN CLOWNS’

Trump sent tweets in Farsi and English to support the demonstrators, drawing a sharp response from Khamenei.

“These American clowns who lie and say they are with the Iranian people should see who the Iranian people are,” he said in his sermon, telling Iranians to unite and show solidarity by turning out in numbers in a February parliamentary election.

Khamenei called for national unity and said Iran’s “enemies” had tried to use the downing of Ukraine International Airlines flight 752 to shift attention from the killing of Soleimani.

Most of those on the flight were Iranians or dual nationals. Canada, Ukraine, Britain, Sweden and Afghanistan, which all had citizens on the flight, have demanded compensation and a thorough investigation into what happened.

Khamenei described the crash as a tragedy, but stopped short of a direct apology although the Guards and other officials have issued profuse apologies since the incident. The supreme leader also called for steps to ensure there was no repeat.

The funeral of Soleimani, long portrayed as a national hero in Iran but seen by the West as a ruthless adversary, had brought huge numbers of Iranian mourners to the streets.

But scenes of mourning for Soleimani were followed by four days of protests over the plane disaster, when demonstrators chanted “Death to Khamenei” and scrawled it on walls. “Clerics get lost,” they shouted, as protests spread to several cities.

To quell the demonstrations, riot police were sent onto the streets in force, lining up outside universities that were a focus for the protests. Video footage online showed protesters were beaten and also recorded gunshots and blood on the streets.

Iran’s police denied firing at protesters and said officers had been ordered to show restraint.

In the bloodiest unrest the country has seen since 1979, Iranian authorities two months ago suppressed protests that erupted over sharp fuel price hikes, which have added to the suffering of ordinary Iranians already hurt by U.S. sanctions.

In reaction to Washington’s “maximum pressure” policy, Tehran has gradually scaled back on commitments to the nuclear deal, including lifting limits on its uranium enrichment.

Britain, France and Germany , which have been trying to salvage the pact, have subsequently launched the deal’s s dispute mechanism over Iran’s violations, starting a diplomatic process that could lead to reimposing U.N. sanctions.

“These European countries cannot be trusted. Even their negotiations with Iran are full of deceit,” Khamenei said.

(Reporting by Parisa Hafezi and Babak Dehghanpisheh; Editing by Edmund Blair and Gareth Jones)

Iran social media posts call for more protests after plane disaster

By Babak Dehghanpisheh

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iranians called on social media on Wednesday for fresh demonstrations a week after the shooting down of a passenger plane, seeking to turn the aftermath of the crash into a sustained campaign against Iran’s leadership.

Protesters, with students at the forefront, have staged daily rallies in Tehran and other cities since Saturday, when after days of denials the authorities admitted bringing down a Ukrainian plane last week, killing all 176 aboard.

“We’re coming to the streets,” one posting circulating on social media said on Wednesday, urging people to join nationwide demonstrations against a “thieving and corrupt government”.

Most of those killed on the plane were Iranians or dual citizens, many of them students returning to studies abroad from holiday visits with their families.

It remains to be seen whether the protests will lead to sustained violence. After several days of unrest, when images posted to the internet showed demonstrators being beaten by the police and shocked with electric batons, protests on Tuesday appear to have been quieter. Two months ago, authorities killed hundreds of demonstrators to put down protests sparked by fuel price hikes.

The plane was downed by air defenses on Jan. 8 when the armed forces were on high alert for U.S. reprisals following tit-for-tat military strikes, the latest escalation in a crisis that has rumbled on for years over Iran’s nuclear program.

Iran has dismissed the idea of a new deal to resolve the nuclear row, as proposed by U.S. President Donald Trump and described by Britain’s prime minister as a “Trump deal.”

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Trump, who quit an existing nuclear pact in 2018, broke his promises.

The military and top officials apologized profusely for the “unforgivable error” that brought the plane down and said it would prosecute those to blame, in a bid to quell the outrage.

Thousands of protesters have been shown in videos gathering in the past four days in cities across Iran. Many have been outside universities. Tehran’s central Azadi Square has also been a focus. But the scale of protests and unrest is difficult to determine due to restrictions on independent reporting.

State-affiliated media has offered few details on rallies.

OUTRAGE

Police have denied shooting at protesters and say officers were told to show restraint. The judiciary said it had arrested 30 people but would show tolerance to “legal protests”.

Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency said a person who had posted a video online last week of a missile striking the plane has been taken into custody by the Revolutionary Guards, the elite force that said one of its operators shot down the plane.

Iranians were outraged the military took days to admit it had shot down Ukraine International Airlines flight 752. They asked why the plane had been allowed to take off at a time of high tension.

Iran had launched missile strikes against U.S. targets in Iraq hours earlier in retaliation for a U.S. drone strike that killed a top Iranian commander in Iraq on Jan. 3.

Security camera footage showed two missiles, fired 30 seconds apart, hitting the plane after takeoff, the New York Times reported. U.S. intelligence officials said on Jan. 9 heat signatures of two surface-to-air missiles were detected.

The disaster and unrest have piled pressure on the Iran’s rulers, who are already struggling to keep the economy running under stringent U.S. sanctions imposed after Washington withdrew from the nuclear pact Tehran had with world powers.

Britain’s ambassador to Tehran was detained, accused of attending a protest. He said he was paying respects at a vigil for victims.

Judicial officials urged the authorities to expel the envoy and social media posts said he had left. The foreign ministry in Britain, which has long had strained ties with Iran, said he was on a previously planned trip and was not leaving permanently.

On Thursday, London hosts a meeting of Canada, Ukraine, Britain and other nations who had citizens on the downed plane to discuss legal action against Iran, Ukraine said.

Canada, which had 57 citizens on the flight, has sent investigators to Iran, where they toured the crash site on Tuesday, Iranian media reported.

(Reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh and Parisa Hafezi and the London bureau; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Peter Graff)

Iran makes arrests over plane disaster as protests rage on

By Parisa Hafezi and Babak Dehghanpisheh

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran said on Tuesday it had arrested people accused of a role in shooting down a Ukrainian airliner and had also detained 30 people involved in protests that have swept the nation for four days since the military belatedly admitted its error.

Wednesday’s shooting down of Ukraine International Airlines flight 752, killing all 176 people aboard, has led to one of the biggest public challenges to the Islamic Republic’s clerical rulers since they took power four decades ago.

In a step that will increase diplomatic pressure, Britain, France and Germany launched a dispute mechanism to challenge Iran for breaching limits on its nuclear program under an agreement which Washington abandoned in 2018.

Since the United States killed Iran’s most powerful military commander in a drone strike on Jan. 3, Tehran has faced escalating confrontation with the West and unrest at home, both reaching levels with little precedent in its modern history.

Iran shot down the airliner on Wednesday when its military was on high alert, hours after it had fired missiles at U.S. targets in Iraq. After days of denying a role in the air crash, it admitted it on Saturday, calling it a tragic mistake.

Protesters, many of them students, have held daily demonstrations since then, chanting “Clerics get lost!” and calling for the removal of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in power for more than 30 years.

Police have responded to some protests with a violent crackdown, video posts on social media showed. Footage showed police beating protesters with batons, wounded people being carried, pools of blood on the streets and the sound of gunfire.

Iran’s police denied firing at protesters. The judiciary said 30 people had been detained in the unrest but said the authorities would show tolerance toward “legal protests”.

‘WHERE IS JUSTICE?’

Video posts on Tuesday showed scores gathered peacefully at two Tehran universities. “Where is justice?” one group chanted.

The extent of the unrest is difficult to assess because of limits on independent reporting. Demonstrations tend to gather momentum later in the day and clashes have been at night.

President Hassan Rouhani promised a thorough investigation into the “unforgivable error” of shooting down the plane. He spoke in a television address on Tuesday, the latest in a series of apologies from a leadership that rarely admits mistakes.

Judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili said some of those accused of having a role in the plane disaster had been arrested, although he did not say how many or identify them.

Most of those on board the flight were Iranians or dual nationals. Canada, Ukraine, Britain and other nations who had citizens on the plane have scheduled a meeting on Thursday in London to consider legal action against Tehran.

The disaster and subsequent unrest comes amid one of the biggest escalations between Tehran and Washington since 1979.

Missiles launched at a U.S. base in Iraq killed an American contractor in December, an attack Washington blamed on an Iran-backed group. Confrontation eventually led to the U.S. drone strike on Jan. 3 that killed Qassem Soleimani, architect of Iran’s regional network of proxy militias.

Iran’s government was already reeling from the reimposition of sanctions by the United States, which quit an agreement with world powers under which Tehran would secure sanctions relief in return for scaling back its nuclear program.

SEEKING COMPLIANCE

Since Washington withdrew, Tehran has stepped back from its nuclear commitments and has said it would no longer recognize limits on enriching uranium. After months of threatening to act, European signatories to the deal, France, Britain and Germany, activated the agreement’s dispute mechanism on Tuesday.

The European Union’s top diplomat said the European move aimed to bring Tehran bank to compliance, not impose sanctions.

Iran’s leaders have been facing a powerful combination of pressure both at home and abroad.

Just two months ago, Iran’s authorities put down anti-government protests, killing hundreds of demonstrators in what is believed to be the most violent crackdown on unrest since the 1979 revolution.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, where Iran has wielded influence through a network of allied movements and proxies, governments that include powerful Iran-sponsored armed factions have faced months of hostile demonstrations in Lebanon and Iraq.

Iran’s president said in his address that those responsible for shooting down the plane would be punished, describing the military’s admission of its mistake “a good first step.”

Rouhani also said the government would be accountable to Iranians and those nations who lost citizens. Iranian state television said aviation officials from Canada, which had 57 citizens on the doomed flight, as well as from Iran and Ukraine, met in Tehran on Tuesday to discuss the investigation.

(Reporting by Parisa Hafezi and Babak Dehghanpisheh and John Irish in Paris; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Peter Graff)

U.S. troops describe ‘miraculous’ escape at Iraqi base attacked by Iran

By John Davison

AIN AL-ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq (Reuters) – Troops at the Iraqi air base that bore the brunt of Iran’s first direct missile attack against U.S. forces said they were shocked by its intensity and grateful to emerge unscathed.

The scale of the damage at the Ain al-Asad base showed Iran’s destructive capability at a time when U.S. officials say they are still concerned that Iran-backed groups across the region could wage attacks on the United States.

“It’s miraculous no one was hurt,” Lt Col Staci Coleman, the U.S. air force officer who runs the airfield, told reporters on Monday at the vast base deep in the western Anbar desert in Iraq, where 1,500 Americans were deployed.

“Who thinks they’re going to have ballistic missiles launched at them … and suffer no casualties?”

The Jan. 8 attack came hours after U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the United States should expect retaliation over the U.S. killing of Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike in Iraq the previous week.

The killing raised fears of a new Middle East war, but the United States, Iraq and other countries with troops at the base said no one was hurt. U.S. military leaders have said that was thanks to commanders on the ground, not Tehran’s goodwill.

At one site, a cruise missile had left a large crater and incinerated living quarters made from shipping containers.

Heavy concrete blast walls were knocked over and the shipping containers were smashed and charred along with contents including bicycles, chairs and other furniture. Several soldiers said one of their number had come very close to being blown up inside a shelter behind the blast walls.

Almost a dozen missiles hit the air base, where U.S. forces carried out “scatter plans” to move soldiers and equipment to a range of fortified areas apart from one another.

The United States did not have Patriot air defenses at the base, putting the onus on local commanders to protect their troops.

“We’d got notification there could be an attack a few hours prior so had moved equipment,” said U.S. Staff Sergeant Tommie Caldwell.

‘IT’S LIKE TERROR’

Lt Col Coleman said that by 10pm all the staff she manages were ready to take cover. “People took this very seriously,” she said.

Three and a half hours later the missiles started arriving. Several soldiers said they continued for two hours.

Staff Sgt Armando Martinez, who had been out in the open to watch for casualties, said he could not believe how easily one missile leveled the concrete blast walls.

“When a rocket strikes that’s one thing; but a ballistic missile, it’s like terror,” he said.

“You see a white light like a shooting star and then a few seconds later it lands and explodes. The other day, after the attack, one colleague saw an actual shooting star and panicked.”

One missile landed on the tarmac of a parking and servicing area for Blackhawk helicopters helping to ferry equipment in the fight against Islamic State insurgents.

The helicopters had been moved but it destroyed two light hangars and badly damaged portacabins nearby.

“We must have been in the bunkers for more than five hours, maybe seven or eight,” said Kenneth Goodwin, Master Sgt in the U.S. Air Force. “They knew what they were aiming at by targeting the airfield and parking area.”

It was the latest strike against an air base that has figured prominently in high-ranking U.S. officials’ visits to Iraq.

“After these missile attacks, when we hear of possible militia rocket attacks, we tend to think, ‘Oh only rockets … that’s a change’,” Coleman said, describing the common feeling when the missile attacks were over as “sheer relief”.

On Sunday the Iraqi military said four people had been wounded in an attack on Balad air base in northern Iraq, which also houses U.S. personnel. Military sources identified the wounded as Iraqi soldiers.

(Reporting by John Davison; Writing by Philippa Fletcher; Editing by David Goodman)

U.S. calls shooting by Saudi officer in Florida ‘act of terrorism’

By Sarah N. Lynch and Mark Hosenball

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The fatal shooting of three Americans by a Saudi Air Force officer at a Florida naval base last month was “an act of terrorism,” U.S. Attorney General William Barr said on Monday, adding that 21 Saudi military trainees will be pulled out of the United States following an investigation into the incident.

The attack brought fresh complications to U.S.-Saudi relations at a time of heightened tensions between the United States and Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional rival. Saudi Air Force Second Lieutenant Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, 21, was fatally shot by a deputy sheriff during the Dec. 6 incident at the facility in Pensacola, Florida.

During a news conference, Barr – the top U.S. law enforcement official – said there was no evidence of assistance by other Saudi trainees or that any of them had knowledge in advance of the attack.

“This was an act of terrorism,” Barr said. “The evidence showed that the shooter was motivated by jihadist ideology. During the course of the investigation, we learned that the shooter posted a message on Sept. 11 of this year stating, ‘The countdown has begun.'”

Barr added that Alshamrani also visited the New York City memorial to the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and posted anti-American, anti-Israeli and jihadi messages on social media, including two hours before the attack.

Saudi Arabia provided “complete and total support” to the American investigation of the incident, Barr said.

(Reporting By Mark Hosenball; Editing by Andy Sullivan and Howard Goller)

Exclusive: ‘Grieving nations’ to discuss legal action against Iran over downed airliner – Ukraine

By John Geddie and Aradhana Aravindan

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Five nations whose citizens died when an airliner was shot down by Iran last week will meet in London on Thursday to discuss possible legal action, Ukraine’s foreign minister told Reuters.

Speaking at the sidelines of an official visit to Singapore on Monday, Vadym Prystaiko said the countries would also discuss compensation and the investigation into the incident. All 176 people on board the flight died in the crash on Wednesday, minutes after the plane took off from Tehran airport.

Prystaiko said suggestions from Iran that the Ukrainian International Airlines plane was downed as it flew near a sensitive military base during a time of heightened tensions were “nonsense”. He said Tehran had agreed to hand over the plane’s black boxes to Kiev for investigation.

“We have created this group of foreign ministers from the grieving nations. On Jan 16, we will meet in person in London to discuss the ways, including legal, how we are following this up, how we are prosecuting them (Iran),” Prystaiko said.

He said the five nations also included Canada – which had at least 57 passport holders aboard the doomed flight – Sweden, Afghanistan and a fifth country which he did not name. Canada has previously said that these four countries and Britain had established a coordination group to support victims’ families.

Many on board were Iranians with dual citizenship.

After days of denials, Iran said on Saturday its military had shot down the plane in a “disastrous mistake”. Prystaiko said Ukraine was not informed by Iran that it would be taking responsibility before that public announcement.

Tehran said its air defenses were fired in error while on alert after Iranian missile strikes on U.S. targets in Iraq, and that the airliner was mistaken for a “hostile target” after it turned toward a sensitive military base of the elite Revolutionary Guards near Tehran.

“This is nonsense because our plane was recorded and confirmed – was going within the international route which was given by the dispatchers…Nothing was extraordinary,” Prystaiko said, adding that investigators said the pilot’s last words were “everything is ok on board and I am switching to auto pilot.”

“I have seen this information on media that our plane changed the route…Yes, because it was hit by rocket! It was already dying.”

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, in a rare step, apologized to the nation and accepted full responsibility. Senior Guards commander Amirali Hajizadeh said he had informed Iran’s authorities on Wednesday about the unintentional strike, a comment that raised questions about why officials had publicly denied it for so long.

Prystaiko said all involved had to be held to account.

“What we don’t want is somebody like the soldier, very low level, to be pointed and told that that is the guy who pushed the button…This is the Iranian government’s responsibility,” he said, speaking in English.

“We have to dig out who gave the order, who pushed the button. Everything…all these people should be punished.”

He said that Ukrainian investigators – many of whom were involved when a Malaysian airliner was shot down over eastern Ukrainian territory held by Russia-backed separatists in 2014 – should be central to the investigation.

“We want to have the full investigation of the recordings on the black boxes themselves to be done by Ukrainian specialists,” he said, adding that France and the aircraft manufacturer Boeing should also be involved.

“They (Iran) committed to give it (black boxes) to us. What we are not having is a particular date when it will happen. We are pushing for immediate release of the black boxes.”

(Reporting by John Geddie and Aradhana Aravindan in Singapore; Editing by Peter Graff)