U.S. sees strong shared interests with European Union on Iran concerns

FILE PHOTO: 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 Pho

WASHINGTON/BERLIN (Reuters) – The United States on Sunday said it hopes to use strong shared interests that have emerged with its European Union partners in recent months to move forward on addressing Iran’s nuclear program, missile development and role in regional conflicts.

A State Department official said the shared interests could form a “foundation to continue to work together moving forward.”

Iran said on Sunday that it would join a meeting with diplomats from Britain, Germany, France, China and Russia in Vienna on Friday to discuss next steps after the May 8 decision by U.S. President Donald Trump to exit the 2015 nuclear accord.

It said Washington would not participate in the meeting of the joint commission set up by the six world powers, Iran and the European Union to handle any complaints about the deal’s implementation.

The German newspaper Welt am Sonntag cited an unnamed senior EU official as saying there were also discussions about a possible new pact between Iran and world powers that would cover the same ground as the 2015 deal but with some additions to appease the United States.

These could include provisions to address U.S. concerns over Iran’s ballistic missile program and Tehran’s support of armed groups in the Middle East, the source said.

“We have to get away from the name ‘Vienna nuclear agreement’ and add in a few additional elements. Only that will convince President Trump to agree and lift sanctions again,” the senior EU official told the paper.

Such an agreement could in the future include financial aid for Iran, the report said.

The State Department official said Washington hoped the EU would focus “on the central issue here:  Iran’s multiple set of malign behaviors with regard to its nuclear program, missile development, terrorism, regional conflicts, and other issues.”

Three EU sources who were part of negotiations to keep Trump from quitting the nuclear deal said Friday’s meeting would address only the implementation of the 2015 deal, but not offer Iran financial aid in exchange for concessions.

In Tehran, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi rejected reports of a proposed new agreement as “irrelevant claims”, the semi-official Tasnim news agency reported.

“A meeting set for the next few days for the first joint commission without the United States … will only cover issues of the nuclear accord between Iran and the other members,” Qasemi said.

Earlier, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi said on state television that the “joint commission … will be held at Iran’s request, and without the United States, to discuss the consequences of America’s withdrawal, and how the remaining countries can continue their commitment to the deal.”

On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will outline a “diplomatic roadmap” and call for broad support from European and other allies to apply pressure on Iran to force it back to the negotiating table, as well as their support to address “the totality of Iran’s threats”.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal in Berlin and Damon Darlin in Washington, Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Ankara, Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky, Dale Hudson, William Maclean)

Muslims must stop other countries opening Jerusalem embassies: Turkey

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Secretary General of Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Yousef bin Ahmad Al-Othaimeen are seen during a meeting of the OIC Foreign Ministers Council in Istanbul, Turkey May 18, 2018. Hudaverdi Arif Yaman/Pool via Reuters

By Tuvan Gumrukcu and Parisa Hafezi

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey called on Muslim countries on Friday to stop other nations from following the United States and moving their embassies in Israel to Jerusalem, as it opened a meeting in Istanbul on Friday.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan called the summit of the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) after Israeli forces this week killed dozens of Palestinian protesters who were demonstrating in Gaza against the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem.

Turkey has been one of the most vocal critics of the U.S. move and the violence in Gaza, declaring three days of mourning. Erdogan has described the actions of the Israeli forces as a “genocide” and Israel as a “terrorist state”.

“We will emphasise the status of the Palestine issue for our community, and that we will not allow the status of the historic city to be changed,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in an opening address. “We must prevent other countries following the U.S. example.”

The events in Gaza have also sparked a diplomatic row between Turkey and Israel, with both countries expelling each other’s senior diplomats this week.

The plight of Palestinians resonates with many Turks, particularly the nationalist and religious voters who form the base of support for Erdogan, running for re-election next month.

TRADE TIES

Despite the rhetoric, Israel was the 10th-biggest market for Turkish exports in 2017, buying some $3.4 billion of goods, according to IMF statistics.

“We have excellent economic ties with Turkey. And these relations are very important for both sides,” Israeli Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon told Israel Radio on Friday when asked if Israel should break ties with Turkey.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to move the embassy reversed decades of U.S. policy, upsetting the Arab world and Western allies.

Guatemala this week became the second country to move its embassy to the holy city, and Paraguay said it would follow suit this month.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told Iranian television after arriving in Istanbul that “Israel’s recent crimes in Palestine and the relocation of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem need serious coordination between Islamic countries and the international community”.

U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein on Friday said Israel had systematically deprived Palestinians of their human rights, with 1.9 million people in Gaza “caged in a toxic slum from birth to death”.

(Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Merkel defends nuclear deal, Iran says won’t ‘surrender’ to U.S.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks during the 2018 budget debate at the lower house of parliament Bundestag in Berlin, Germany, May 16, 2018. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

By Bozorgmehr Sharafedin

LONDON (Reuters) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel pushed back on Wednesday against Washington’s rejection of the Iran nuclear deal, saying the accord helped outside powers worried about Tehran’s regional role to pursue their concerns with the Islamic Republic.

Iran reiterated it would not surrender to U.S. pressure and would resist U.S. “plots”, following President Donald Trump’s abandonment of the 2015 agreement last week.

Repudiating the result of more than a decade of diplomacy, Trump complained that the deal does not cover Iran’s ballistic missiles, its role in regional wars or what happens after the pact begins to expire in 2025.

Major European countries share Trump’s concerns but argue that the nuclear deal is the best way to stop the increasingly influential regional power from obtaining an atomic weapon.

Merkel reasserted a defense of the deal in remarks to lawmakers in the Bundestag lower house of parliament.

“The question is whether you can talk better if you terminate an agreement or if you stay in it … we say you can talk better if you remain in it,” she said.

“This agreement is everything other than ideal, but Iran is, according to all the knowledge of the international nuclear authorities, sticking to the commitments of the agreement.”

The deal between Iran and six world powers lifted most international sanctions in 2016 in return for Tehran curbing its nuclear program, under strict surveillance by the U.N. nuclear watchdog.

Trump last week announced he planned to reimpose an array of sanctions lifted by the accord, and the U.S. Treasury on Tuesday imposed sanctions on Iran’s central bank governor, three other individuals and an Iraq-based bank.

Iran meanwhile said the new U.S. sanctions were an attempt to derail efforts to save the deal.

“With such destructive measures, the American government is trying to influence the will and decision of the remaining signatories of the JCPOA (nuclear agreement),” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi was quoted as saying by Fars news agency.

Iran has described the sanctions as illegal and has warned that if talks to rescue the accord fail, it would ramp up its nuclear program to a level more advanced than before.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Trump expected Tehran to leave the deal after the U.S. withdrawal, but Tehran had refused to follow that plan by trying to save the deal with its remaining signatories.

“Trump played his first card, but miscalculated the second move,” Rouhani was quoted as saying by the ISNA agency.

GUARANTEES

He also said Iran would not surrender to U.S. pressures.

“They think they can make the Iranian nation surrender by putting pressures on Iran, by sanctions and even threats of war… The Iranian nation will resist against the U.S. plots,” Rouhani was quoted as saying by ISNA news agency.

However the top advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said he doubted Tehran’s talks with European nations to save the deal would be successful.

“I doubt that the talks with the Europeans will be fruitful. I hope we see good results, but …. we should become self-sufficient,” Ali Akbar Velayati said, Fars news agency reported.

European powers this week vowed to shore up the deal by trying to keep Iran’s oil and investment flowing, but admitted they would struggle to provide the guarantees Tehran seeks.

British, French and German foreign ministers met in Brussels on Tuesday to see how they can save the nuclear deal without the United States, but appeared hard-pressed over how their companies could continue doing business with Iran once Washington begins to reimpose sanctions.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said his meeting with European Union officials in Brussels had been a good start, but he wanted to see guarantees materialize.

The Europeans and Iranians have tasked experts to come up with measures quickly and will meet again in Vienna next week.

Reuters reported on Wednesday that a senior Iranian official has met Chinese oil buyers this week to ask them to maintain imports after U.S. sanctions kick in.

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafed, additional reporting by Michelle Martin in Berlin, Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky, William Maclean)

Israeli joy, Palestinian fury over U.S. embassy launch in Jerusalem

Palestinian demonstrators run for cover during a protest against U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem and ahead of the 70th anniversary of Nakba, at the Israel-Gaza border in the southern Gaza Strip May 14, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The crowd sported branded baseball caps and Israel’s prime minister wore red, white and blue as the United States opened its embassy in Jerusalem on Monday, delighting Israelis and deepening Palestinian anger.

“Our greatest hope is for peace,” U.S. President Donald Trump said in a recorded video message, even as a spokesman for the Palestinian president accused him of sowing instability by overturning decades of U.S. policy on the status of the city.

The inauguration of the embassy, after Trump outraged the Arab world and stoked international concern by recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December, was hailed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a “glorious day”.

Trump opted not to attend the ceremony in which a U.S. consular building was re-purposed into an embassy, pending the construction of a new facility, probably years away.

His daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, both White House advisers, were there, seated next to Netanyahu opposite a stage with a backdrop of U.S. and Israeli flags. Two American pastors and a rabbi gave invocations.

Kushner, in a rare public speech, said the relocation from Tel Aviv, a diplomatically and politically sensitive step promised but never implemented by a succession of U.S. presidents, showed that Trump was a man of his word.

The comments were telling, just a week after Trump announced Washington’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, a move that critics said weakened global trust in the United States.

GAZA VIOLENCE

“When President Trump makes a promise, he keeps it,” Kushner said, a reference to a campaign pledge to open a Jerusalem embassy. “Today also demonstrates American leadership. By moving our embassy to Jerusalem, we have shown the world once again that the United States can be trusted.”

Palestinians, with broad international backing, seek East Jerusalem as the capital of a state they want to establish in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Israel regards all of the city, including the eastern sector it captured in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed, as its “eternal and indivisible capital”. The Trump administration has avoided that description, and noted that the city’s final borders should be decided by the parties.

The crowd, many wearing the caps marked “U.S. Embassy, Jerusalem, Israel” rose for numerous standing ovations. Attendants handed out pretzels and mineral water.

A smiling Netanyahu, decked out in U.S. colours – a blue suit, white shirt and red tie – showered praise on Trump, a president with whom he is in lockstep on many regional issues.

Thanking Trump for “having the courage” to move the embassy, Netanyahu said: “This is a great day. A great day for Jerusalem. A great day for the state of Israel. A day that will be engraved in our national memory for generations.”

Split screens on Israeli television stations showed a more complex story.

As coverage of the embassy ceremony ran on one side of the screen, the other broadcast the violence along Israel’s border with Gaza, where dozens of Palestinian protesters were killed by Israeli gunfire.

Amid expressions of international concern and condemnation over the use of live ammunition, Israel said it was taking the necessary measures to prevent any breach of its border fence with the enclave run by the militant Hamas movement.

Kushner, echoing the Netanyahu government’s position that the six weeks of Gaza protests were being orchestrated by Hamas Islamists opposed to Israel’s existence, said: “Even today those provoking violence are part of the problem and not part of the solution.”

(Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Andrew Heavens)

Iran says Syria has every right to defend itself against Israel: TV

Missile fire is seen from Damascus, Syria. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

ANKARA (Reuters) – Iran on Friday supported Syria’s right to defend itself against aggression from Israel, state TV reported, accusing others of remaining silent over the attacks on Tehran’s key regional ally.

“Iran strongly condemns …(Israel’s) attacks on Syria. The international community’s silence encourages Israel’s aggression. Syria has every right to defend itself,” the broadcaster quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi as saying.

Israel said it had attacked nearly all of Iran’s military infrastructure in Syria on Thursday after Iranian forces fired rockets at Israeli-held territory for the first time, in the most extensive military exchange ever between the two adversaries.

The confrontation came two days after President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the 2015 multinational agreement aimed it curbing Iran’s nuclear program.

Tehran and its allied Shi’ite Muslim militias back Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Since its Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran has refused to recognize Israel.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; editing by John Stonestreet)

Iraqis voting in first election since Islamic State

An Iraqi security member casts his vote at a polling station two days before polls open to the public in a parliamentary election in Baghdad, Iraq May 10, 2018. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

By Ahmed Aboulenein

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – For the first time since driving out Islamic State, Iraqis go to the polls on Saturday in an election that will shape attempts to heal the country’s deep divisions and could shift the regional balance of power.

Iraq’s three main ethnic and religious groups, the majority Shi’ite Arabs and the minority Sunni Arabs and Kurds, have been at loggerheads for decades and the sectarian rifts are as apparent as ever 15 years after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

The election of a new prime minister and parliament also takes place the same week U.S. President Donald Trump announced he was pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, raising tensions between Iraq’s two main allies: Tehran and Washington.

A female security member casts her vote at a polling station two days before polls open to the public in a parliamentary election in Baghdad, Iraq May 10, 2018. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

A female security member casts her vote at a polling station two days before polls open to the public in a parliamentary election in Baghdad, Iraq May 10, 2018. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

Whoever wins the May 12 election will face the challenge of rebuilding Iraq after four years of war with Islamic State, jump-starting a flagging economy, balancing the interests of powerful foreign patrons and maintaining the country’s fragile unity in the face of sectarian and separatist tensions.

“We want security. We have killings, theft, kidnappings. We never had this before. In the past 15 years the people have been destroyed,” said 29-year-old Khalid Radi, a laborer in Baghdad.

Incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is considered by analysts to be marginally ahead but victory is far from certain.

Even though he announced Islamic State’s defeat during his first four-year term, diffused sectarian tensions enflamed by his predecessor, and maintained Iraq’s unity in the face of a Kurdish independence bid, he faces a tough battle.

THREE-WAY RACE

Abadi has faced criticism about persistent government corruption, tough economic conditions and the austerity measures his cabinet introduced after the slide in global oil prices and to help pay for the fight against Islamic State.

He also cannot rely solely on votes from his community as the majority Shi’ite voter base is unusually split this year. Instead, he is looking to draw upon support from other groups.

Many, but not all, Sunnis see Abadi as a less sectarian alternative to his two main Shi’ite rivals and credit him with liberating their areas from Islamic State.

There’s bad blood between Abadi and the Kurds, however, after Baghdad imposed sanctions on the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region following its failed independence bid last year.

Even if Abadi’s Victory Alliance list wins the most seats he still has to navigate the long-winded and complicated backroom negotiations required to form a coalition government.

His two main challengers are his predecessor Nuri al-Maliki and Iranian-backed Shi’ite militia commander Hadi al-Amiri.

Both have a more passionate voter base than Abadi, who is mostly appealing to more pragmatic voters who see him as having better relations with the outside world and a cross-sectarian appeal needed to avoid further bloodshed and attract investment.

Like Abadi, Amiri is running on a platform highlighting the victory against Islamic State, though the militia leader’s narrative is more compelling as he was a frontline commander and is viewed as war hero by many Shi’ites.

Maliki, who was sidelined after eight years in office in 2014 after losing a third of the country to Islamic State, is looking to make a political comeback.

In contrast to the cross-sectarian message of Abadi, Maliki is again posing as Iraq’s Shi’ite champion and is proposing to do away with the country’s unofficial power-sharing model in which all the main parties have cabinet representatives.

COALITION HORSE-TRADING

Ever since Saddam fell in 2003, ending decades of dominance by the Sunni minority, senior government positions have been unofficially split between the country’s main groups.

The post of prime minister has been reserved for a Shi’ite, the speaker for a Sunni, and the ceremonial presidency has gone to a Kurd – with all three being chosen by parliament.

More than 7,000 candidates in 18 provinces, or governorates, are running this year for 329 parliamentary seats.

The Iraqi constitution sets a 90-day deadline for forming a government after the election results are formally announced and the horse-trading can be protracted.

The new government will also have to cope with the simmering tension between the United States and Iran.

As prime minister, Abadi has won praise for his deft juggling of the competing and colliding interests of his two main backers. While his government maintains good relations with Iran, he is seen as balanced and Western diplomats say he would be the easiest candidate to work with.

Maliki, who pushed for U.S. troop withdrawals and Amiri, who speaks fluent Farsi and spent years in exile in Iran during the Saddam Hussein era, are both seen as much closer to Tehran.

DIVISIONS ALL ROUND

The election is also taking place in an atmosphere of division and disillusionment within Iraq’s three main groups.

The Shi’ite vote is split as many are unhappy with their leaders after 15 years in power that have only yielded violence and unemployment and left the country’s infrastructure crumbling.

But if the Shi’ites are split because they have too many leaders, Sunni Arabs are divided because they have none.

Sunnis are at their lowest point yet. Millions languish in displacement camps, many are out of pocket and trying to rebuild destroyed homes in cities reduced to rubble – and they feel collectively branded as Islamic State sympathizers.

The Sunni politicians that have held positions in government are largely discredited and there is no national Sunni leadership or party structure.

Iraq’s Kurds, meanwhile, blame their leaders for gambling away hard-won autonomy in the failed independence referendum and might punish them by voting for non-traditional parties, which in turn could undermine the historically unified Kurdish bloc’s position as kingmakers in parliament.

Voters go to the polls on Saturday, though security forces and Iraqis abroad started voting on Thursday. The electoral commission has said results will come “hours” after polls close.

Islamic State has threatened to attack polling stations amid a recent uptick in security incidents in areas retaken from the militants while many voters simply do not feel the election will bring any change.

“I propose the state just cancel parliament. Shake it and uproot it,” said 27-year-old mechanic Mustafa Tabbar using a popular Iraqi phrase meaning radical change.

(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein; editing by David Clarke)

Israel says it attacked targets in Syria after Iranian rocket fire

Missile fire is seen from Damascus, Syria May 10, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

By Dan Williams and Angus McDowall

JERUSALEM/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Israel said it attacked nearly all of Iran’s military infrastructure in Syria on Thursday after Iranian forces fired rockets at Israeli-held territory for the first time.

It was the heaviest Israeli barrage in Syria since the start in 2011 of its war, in which Iranians, allied Shi’ite Muslim militias and Russian troops have deployed in support of President Bashar al-Assad.

The Syrian Army Command said Israel’s attack killed three people and injured two others. A Britain-based war monitor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the strikes killed at least 23 military personnel, including Syrians and non-Syrians.

The White House, in a statement, condemned Iran’s “provocative rocket attacks” from Syria and said it supported Israel’s right to defend itself.

Expectations of a regional flare-up, amid warnings from Israel that it was determined to prevent any Iranian military entrenchment in Syria, were stoked by U.S. President Donald Trump’s announcement on Tuesday that he was withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers.

The Trump administration portrayed its rejection of that agreement as a response, in part, to Iran’s military interventions in the Middle East, underpinning Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s tough line towards Tehran.

Israel said 20 Iranian Grad and Fajr rockets were shot down by its Iron Dome air defense system or did not reach targets in the occupied Golan Heights, territory captured from Syria in a 1967 war.

The Quds Force, an external arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, carried out the rocket salvo, Israel said.

There was no immediate comment from Iran.

Iran and Israel were already drawing deeper into confrontation before Trump pulled the United States out of the deal, but his move has shaken up the region. Within Iran, it could empower hardliners while weakening the moderate camp that has sought better relations with the West.

Syrian state media said Israel launched dozens of missiles and hit a radar station, Syrian air defense positions and an ammunition dump, underscoring the risks of a wider escalation involving Iran and its regional allies.

“We hit … almost all of the Iranian infrastructure in Syria,” Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said at the annual Herzliya security conference near Tel Aviv. “I hope we finished this chapter and everyone got the message.”

Lieberman said the Iranian rockets either fell short of their targets – military bases in the Golan – or were intercepted.

The White House said: “The Iranian regime’s deployment into Syria of offensive rocket and missile systems aimed at Israel is an unacceptable and highly dangerous development for the entire Middle East.”

The Syrian foreign ministry said the Israeli attack indicated “the start of a new phase of aggression” against Damascus.

Israeli soldiers are seen in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel May 10, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Israeli soldiers are seen in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel May 10, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

CALLS FOR RESTRAINT

Thursday’s exchange followed a suspected Israeli rocket strike in Syria on Tuesday on a military base in Kisweh, hours after Trump’s announcement on the nuclear deal.

The Syrian Observatory for Human rights said 15 people, including eight Iranians, were killed in that attack. A commander in the pro-Syrian government regional alliance said there were no casualties. Israel, as it has typically done in similar incidents, neither confirmed nor denied a role.

France urged Iran on Thursday to refrain from all “military provocation” and cautioned it against “all temptations for regional hegemony”.

Russia, which is generally friendly to Israel but fights in Syria’s civil war on the same side as Iran, called on both to show restraint and resolve differences through diplomatic means.

Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus said Israel destroyed dozens of Iranian military sites in Syria, as well as Syrian anti-aircraft units that tried unsuccessfully to shoot down Israeli planes.

He said the military focused on inflicting “long-term damage on the Iranian military establishment in Syria” and assessed “it will take a substantial time to replenish”.

Russia’s defense ministry said Syria had shot down more than half of the missiles fired by Israel, RIA news agency reported.

In the Golan, Israeli schools opened as usual on Thursday morning after sirens sent residents to shelters overnight.

The Israelis fear that Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah are turning Syria into a new front against them. Israel says its occasional strikes in Syria aim to prevent such an outcome.

Iran vowed retaliation after a suspected Israeli air strike last month killed seven of its military personnel at a Syrian air base. Israel regards Iran as its biggest threat and has repeatedly targeted Iranian forces and allied militia in Syria.

(Additional reporting by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Dahlia Nehme and Tom Perry and Ellen Francis in Beirut; Writing by Jeffrey Heller and Angus McDowall; Editing by Tom Perry, Mark Heinrich and Peter Graff)

Syrian Observatory: Israeli raid in Syria killed Iranians

An Israeli tank can be seen near the Israeli side of the border with Syria in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel May 9, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Angus McDowall and Jeffrey Heller

BEIRUT/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Wednesday an Israeli attack on Iranian military facilities south of Damascus had killed at least 15 people, including eight Iranians.

The reports of an Israeli attack in Kisweh late on Tuesday emerged after U.S. President Donald Trump announced he was pulling out of the Iranian nuclear deal.

The UK-based Observatory said the missile strikes hit depots and rocket launchers, killing 15 individuals including eight Iranians. Reuters could not independently verify the report.

A commander in the regional alliance fighting alongside Damascus said that Israel had hit a Syrian army base without causing casualties.

Trump’s hard tack against the nuclear deal, while welcomed by Israel, has stirred fears of a possible regional flare-up.

Within hours of the White House announcement on Tuesday night, Syrian state media said that its air defenses had brought down two Israeli missiles.

Israel’s military declined to comment on the reports, shortly after it said it had identified “irregular activity” by Iranian forces in Syria and went onto high alert. The military had instructed authorities in the Golan Heights bordering Syria to ready bomb shelters and mobilized some reservist forces.

Iran and its ally, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, have helped Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s military with critical support in the seven-year-old war, beating back rebels and Islamic State.

Tehran’s growing clout in Syria alarms arch foe Israel, which has struck what it describes as Iranian deployments or arms transfers to Hezbollah scores of times during the conflict.

Last month, an air strike on the T-4 air base near Syria’s Homs city killed seven Iranians. Tehran blamed Israel and vowed to retaliate.

Israeli-Iranian confrontation would likely remain limited after Washington abandoned the nuclear deal, but conflict between the two regional powers will flare on in Syria, experts said on Wednesday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Russia to press its leader, Vladimir Putin, to rein in the Iranians along the Syrian front.

FLARE UPS

Ghaleb Kandil, a Lebanese political analyst with close ties to Hezbollah and Damascus, said he expected the two enemies to exchange “limited, calculated attacks” in Syria’s war as deterrents.

“It’s clear that everyone realizes the risks of a big confrontation … Iran does not want (this) confrontation, and Israel knows its consequences,” he said.

The occupied Golan, which Israel captured from Syria in a 1967 war, was quiet on Wednesday.

“The children are in kindergartens and the crop pickers are out in the fields, all agricultural work is continuing as normal and tourists are arriving. There have been very few tour group cancellations,” said Diti Goldstein, a local tourism official.

Still, experts said they expected flare ups to persist.

“Israel has military dominance and free hand to carry out those kinds of attacks” on targets inside Syria, said Gary Samore, who served as a deputy national security adviser to former U.S. President George W. Bush.

Sooner or later, Shi’ite militias which Tehran has deployed in Syria will also likely attack Israeli military sites near the border, he said at an annual security conference near Tel Aviv.

But Samore added that Russia, a leading powerbroker in Syria and key Assad ally, wants to keep things “under control” and avoid “a big war between Israel and Iran” on Syrian territory.

In 2015, Russia and Israel set up a hotline to prevent accidental clashes between their forces in Syria.

In an interview with Israeli news site YNet, Israeli Intelligence Minister Israel Katz said the government’s strategy was “to get Iran out of Syria without starting a war”.

“We want the Iranians to be forced into making the decision to strategically retreat from Syria,” Katz said.

(Reporting By Angus McDowall in Beirut; Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Additional reporting by Ellen Francis in BeirutWriting by Ellen Francis in Beirut; Editing by Angus MacSwan, William Maclean)

Israel declares high alert over Iranian actions in Syria

FILE PHOTO - An Israeli soldier walks near a military post close to the Druze village of Majdal Shams in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel February 10, 2018. REUTERS/Ammar Awad/File Photo

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel has instructed local authorities in the Israeli-held Golan Heights to “unlock and ready (bomb) shelters” after identifying what the military described on Tuesday as “irregular activity of Iranian forces in Syria”.

The announcement came minutes before U.S. President Donald Trump declared he was withdrawing from the 2015 international nuclear deal with Iran, a move that has stirred concern about a possible regional flare-up.

Israeli media said the order to prepare bomb shelters was unprecedented during Syria’s seven-year-old civil war, in which Israel is formally neutral, though it has carried out cross-border strikes at suspected deployments by Iranian forces supporting Damascus and arms transfers to Hezbollah guerrillas.

Iran has blamed Israel for an April 9 strike that killed seven of its personnel at a Syrian airbase and has vowed revenge.

In its statement, Israel’s military further said that its defense systems had been deployed “and IDF (Israel Defence Force) troops are on high alert for an attack”.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a televised address after Trump’s announcement, lauding the U.S. president’s hard tack on Iran and alluding to the tensions over Syria.

“For months now, Iran has been transferring lethal weaponry to its forces in Syria, with the purpose of striking at Israel,” Netanyahu said. “We will respond mightily to any attack on our territory.”

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Trump pulls U.S. from Iran nuclear deal, to revive sanctions

U.S. President Donald Trump reacts to a question from the media as National Security Advisor John Bolton and Vice President Mike Pence look on after the president announced his intention to withdraw from the JCPOA Iran nuclear agreement during a statement in the Diplomatic Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., May 8, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump said on Tuesday he was reimposing economic sanctions on Iran and pulling the United States out of an international agreement aimed at stopping Tehran from obtaining a nuclear bomb.

The decision is likely to raise the risk of conflict in the Middle East, upset America’s European allies and disrupt global oil supplies.

“I am announcing today that the United States will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal,” Trump said at the White House. “In a few moments, I will sign a presidential memorandum to begin reinstating U.S. nuclear sanctions on the Iranian regime. We will be instituting the highest level of economic sanctions.”

The 2015 deal, worked out by the United States, five other international powers and Iran, eased sanctions on Iran in exchange for Tehran limiting its nuclear program.

Trump says the agreement, the signature foreign policy achievement of Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, does not address Iran’s ballistic missile program, its nuclear activities beyond 2025 nor its role in conflicts in Yemen and Syria.

Iran has ruled out renegotiating the agreement and threatened to retaliate, although it has not said exactly how, if Washington pulled out.

Renewing sanctions would make it much harder for Iran to sell its oil abroad or use the international banking system.

(Additional reporting by Tim Ahmann, Makini Brice, Warren Strobel and Arshad Mohammed in Washington, Ayenat Mersie in New York, Sybille de La Hamaide, John Irish and Tim Hepher in Paris, Parisa Hafezi in Ankara, Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London, Andrew Torchia in Dubai; Writing by William Maclean and Alistair Bell; Editing by Peter Graff, Yara Bayoumy and Bill Trott)