U.S. concerned over Hezbollah’s growing role in Lebanon

FILE PHOTO: Lebanon's Hezbollah supporters chant slogans during last day of Ashura, in Beirut, Lebanon September 20, 2018. REUTERS/Aziz Taher/File Photo

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Hezbollah’s growing role in the Lebanese government worries the United States, the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon said during a meeting with Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri on Tuesday, according to the U.S. embassy.

The armed Shi’ite group, which is backed by Iran and listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, controls three of the 30 ministries in Hariri’s new cabinet, the largest number it has ever held. They include the Health Ministry, which has the fourth-largest budget in the state.

U.S. Ambassador Elizabeth Richard, speaking after the meeting, said she had been “very frank … about U.S. concern over the growing role in the cabinet of an organization that continues to maintain a militia that is not under the control of the government”, according to an embassy statement.

Richard, who did not name Hezbollah, said the group “continues to make its own national security decisions; decisions that endanger the rest of the country”.

It also “continues to violate the government’s disassociation policy by participating in armed conflict in at least three other countries”, she said. Lebanon’s official policy of disassociation is intended to keep it out of the region’s conflicts.

Hezbollah’s regional clout has expanded as it sends fighters to Mideast conflicts, including the war in neighboring Syria, where it has fought in support of President Bashar al-Assad.

Together with groups and individuals that see its arsenal as an asset to Lebanon, Hezbollah won more than 70 of the 128 seats in parliament in an election last year. Hariri, who is backed by the West, lost more than a third of his MPs.

A new unity cabinet, which took nearly nine months to put together, largely reflects the election result.

The United States has supplied the Lebanese military with more than $2.3 billion in assistance since 2005, aiming to support it as “the sole, legitimate defender” of the country. The United States is the largest provider of development, humanitarian and security assistance to Lebanon, Richard said.

“In just this last year alone, the United States provided more than $825 million in U.S. assistance and that’s an increase over the previous year.”

(Writing by Tom Perry, editing by Larry King)

I did it for my daughter, says woman arrested for headscarf protest in Iran

Azam Jangravi poses during an interview with Reuters, at the unknown location, February 7, 2019. REUTERS

By Emily Wither

(Reuters) – Azam Jangravi’s heart was pounding when she climbed atop an electricity transformer box on Tehran’s busy Revolution Street a year ago. She raised her headscarf in the air and waved it above her head.

A crowd formed. People shouted at her to come down. She knew all along she was going to be arrested. But she did it anyway, she says, to change the country for her eight-year-old daughter.

“I was telling myself: ‘Viana should not grow up in the same conditions in this country that you grew up in’,” Jangavi recalled this week in an interview in an apartment in an undisclosed location outside Iran, where she now awaits news on an application for asylum.

Azam Jangravi holds hands with her daughter in a park, at the unknown location, February 7, 2019. REUTERS

Azam Jangravi holds hands with her daughter in a park, at the unknown location, February 7, 2019. REUTERS

“I kept telling myself: ‘You can do this, you can do this’,” she said. “I was feeling a very special kind of power. It was as if I was not the secondary gender anymore.”

After her protest, she was arrested, fired from her job at a research institute and sentenced to three years in prison for promoting indecency and wilfully breaking Islamic law.

The court threatened to take her daughter away, but she managed to escape Iran – with Viana – before her jail term began: “I found a human smuggler with a lot of difficulty. It all happened very quickly, I left my life, my house, my car behind,” she said.

As she spoke, Viana sketched pictures. They showed her mother waving the white hijab in the air.

Since Iran’s Islamic Revolution 40 years ago this week, women have been ordered to cover their hair for the sake of modesty. Violators are publicly admonished, fined or arrested.

Jangravi was one of at least 39 women arrested last year in connection with hijab protests, according to Amnesty International, which says another 55 people were detained for their work on women’s rights, including women who tried to enter football stadiums illegally and lawyers advocating for women.

Authorities go to “extreme and absurd lengths to stop their campaign”, said Amnesty’s Iran researcher Mansoureh Mills. “Like searching people’s homes for pin badges that have ‘I am against forced hijab’ written on them.”

The badges are part of continued efforts to highlight the hijab issue, along with a campaign for women to wear white headscarves on Wednesdays.

Jangravi recalls stories her mother told her about life before the revolution: “She told me that the revolution caused a great deal of sexism and they separated men and women.”

She was inspired to act after two other women were arrested for similar protests on the same street.

“Of course we don’t expect everyone to climb up the platform in Revolution Street,” she said. “But this made our voices heard by the entire world. What we girls did made this movement into something that continues.”

(Editing by Peter Graff)

Pence, at summit, lashes out at Europeans over Iran

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands as they meet in Warsaw, Poland, February 14, 2019. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

By Lesley Wroughton and Alan Charlish

WARSAW (Reuters) – U.S. Vice President Mike Pence accused leading European countries on Thursday of trying to break U.S. sanctions against Tehran, in remarks at a Middle East peace summit that were likely to further strain transatlantic relations.

Pence spoke at the conference in Warsaw attended by 60 countries, including Israel and six Gulf Arab states, but not the Palestinians or Iran.

European powers, who oppose the Trump administration’s decision to pull out of a nuclear deal with Iran, were openly skeptical of a conference excluding Tehran. France and Germany declined to send their top diplomats, while British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt left before Thursday’s main events.

“Sadly, some of our leading European partners have not been nearly as cooperative,” Pence said. “In fact, they have led the effort to create mechanisms to break up our sanctions.”

Trump pulled the United States last year out of the 2015 Iran deal, under which Tehran agreed to curbs on its nuclear program in return for the lifting of sanctions.

European countries say the move was a mistake and have promised to try to salvage the deal as long as Iran continues to abide by it. In practice, European companies have accepted new U.S. sanctions on Iran and abandoned plans to invest there.

Pence said a European scheme to trade with Iran, known as the Special Purpose Vehicle, was “an effort to break American sanctions against Iran’s murderous revolutionary regime”.

“It is an ill-advised step that will only strengthen Iran, weaken the EU and create still more distance between Europe and the United States,” he said.

The European trade vehicle was conceived as a way to help match Iranian oil and gas exports against purchases of EU goods. However, those ambitions have been scaled back, with diplomats saying that, realistically, it will be used only for trade, for example of humanitarian products or food, allowed by Washington.

The summit venue in Poland could itself be seen as a rebuke to Washington’s traditional Western European allies, who are at odds with a nationalist government in Warsaw over moves the EU says curb judicial independence and free speech.

The summit was notable because of the presence of Israel alongside wealthy Arab states. Washington aims to narrow differences between its Israeli and Arab allies to isolate Iran.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who met with Omani Foreign Minister Yousuf bin Alawi bin Abdullahon on the sidelines on Wednesday, called the conference a “historical turning point” in combating the threat from Iran.

“DESPERATE CIRCUS”

But just as notable were the absences, not only of Iran itself — which called the meeting a “desperate circus” — but of the Palestinians, who refused to attend over what they regard as U.S. bias against them under Trump. They have been boycotting the administration since Trump reversed decades of U.S. policy in 2017 to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Chief Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erekat took aim at the Arab states for attending, citing an Arab meeting last year that reaffirmed demands that Israel first withdraw from Palestinian land before it can normalize ties with Arab countries.

“Reward the occupation, the decision to abolish the Arab Peace Initiative and the decisions of the Dhahran Summit. For what? Mediation between America and Israel on the one hand and Iran on the other,” Erekat tweeted.

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said the only path to peace was by negotiating with the Palestinian leadership represented by Abbas.

European allies were concerned that the conference would turn into an Iran-bashing session, which would only increase tensions with the Tehran.

“We strongly disagree… We want to push Iran to good results and don’t want to push Iran outside of its nuclear commitment,” a diplomat from a major European power said after Pence’s speech.

Niels Annen, Germany’s minister of state, expressed skepticism over the likely outcome.

“I am hoping for constructive signals but nobody here has the expectation that this conference will solve problems,” he told reporters on the sidelines of the meeting. “That would be unrealistic because we need a political agreement with all participants at the end of the day.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for an era of cooperation at opening remarks that were broadcast publicly. The rest of the meeting, including a presentation by White House advisor and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner on plans for Israeli-Palestinian peace, was held behind closed is doors.

Kushner and Trump’s Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt are trying to broker a peace plan to cover all core issues of the decades-old conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, U.S. official say. Release of the plan has been delayed by Palestinian anger at Trump’s change of U.S. policy on Jerusalem.

(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, Alicja Ptak, Marcin Goclowski and Marcel Kolling; Editing by Justyna Pawlak, Mark Heinrich and Peter Graff)

U.S. charges former Air Force officer with spying for Iran

Monica Witt, 39, a former U.S. Air Force officer, indicted for aiding Iran, is seen in this FBI photo released in Washington, DC, U.S., February 13, 2019. Courtesy FBI/Handout via REUTERS

By Andy Sullivan and Lisa Lambert

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States on Wednesday charged former U.S. Air Force intelligence officer Monica Witt with helping Iran in a cyber-spying operation that targeted her former colleagues.

As part of its action, the United States also charged four Iranian nationals who it said were involved in the cyber attacks.

Washington also sanctioned two Iran-based firms – New Horizon Organization and Net Peygard Samavat Company – and several individuals associated with the two groups.

U.S. officials said Witt supplied classified information about U.S. intelligence officers after defecting to Iran in 2013.

Witt was recruited for the operation after attending two international conferences organized by New Horizon, which supported efforts by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force to recruit and collect intelligence from foreign attendees, they said.

They said Witt served as a counterintelligence officer in the Air Force from 1997 until 2008, and worked as contractor for two years after that.

Net Peygard targeted current and former U.S. government and military personnel with a malicious cyber campaign, officials said.

(Additional reporting by Makini Brice; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Steve Orlofsky)

Rouhani: Iran to continue expanding military might, missile work – TV

FILE PHOTO: Iran's President Hassan Rouhani exits following a news conference on the sidelines of the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 26, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan Mcdermid/File Photo

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Monday that Iran was determined to expand its military power and ballistic missile program despite mounting pressure from hostile countries to curb Iran’s defensive work, state TV reported.

“We have not asked and will not ask for permission to develop different types of … missiles and will continue our path and our military power,” Rouhani said in a speech at Tehran’s Azadi (Freedom) square, where tens of thousands gathered to mark the 40th anniversary of Iran’s Islamic revolution.

Rouhani also vowed Iran would defeat U.S. sanctions, reimposed after President Donald Trump withdrew from Tehran’s nuclear accord with world powers last year.

“The Iranian people have and will have some economic difficulties (due to the sanctions) but we will overcome the problems by helping each other,” Rouhani said.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Additional reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafeddin; Editing by Alison Williams, Editing by William Maclean)

As revolution turns 40, Iran taunts U.S., vaunts military

Iranians burn U.S. flags during a ceremony to mark the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Tehran, Iran February 11, 2019. Meghdad Madadi/Tasnim News Agency/via REUTERS

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) – Hundreds of thousands of Iranians marched and some burned U.S. flags on Monday to mark the 40th anniversary of the triumph of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Shi’ite cleric who toppled the Shah in an Islamic Revolution that rattles the West to this day.

On Feb 11, 1979, Iran’s army declared its neutrality, paving the way for the fall of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the United States’ closest ally in the Middle East.

 

Iranian people gather during a ceremony to mark the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Tehran, Iran February 11, 2019. Masoud Shahrestani/Tasnim News Agency/via REUTERS

Iranian people gather during a ceremony to mark the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Tehran, Iran February 11, 2019. Masoud Shahrestani/Tasnim News Agency/via REUTERS

State TV showed crowds defying cold rainy weather and carrying Iranian flags while shouting “Death to Israel, Death to America,” trademark chants of the revolution which ousted the United States’ most important ally in the Middle East.

“Much to the dismay of America, the revolution has reached its 40th year,” read one banner.

Soldiers, students, clerics and black-clad women holding small children thronged streets across Iran, many carrying portraits of Khomeini, who died in 1989, and Iran’s current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The large turnout in state-sponsored rallies came as Iranians face mounting economic hardships many blame on the country’s clerical leaders.

Last year, Iran cracked down on protests over poor living standards that posed the most serious challenge to its clerical leadership since a 2009 uprising over disputed elections.

Prices of basic foodstuffs, particularly meat, have soared since President Donald Trump withdrew Washington from the 2015 nuclear deal last year and reimposed sanctions.

In January, President Hassan Rouhani said Iran was facing its worst economic crisis since the Shah was toppled. But he remained defiant as Iranians recalled the end of a monarch who catered to the rich and unleashed secret police on dissenters.

In a speech at Tehran’s Azadi (Freedom) square, Rouhani said U.S. efforts to isolate Iran would fail.

“We will not let America become victorious. Iranian people have and will have some economic difficulties but we will overcome the problems by helping each other,” he said.

Iranians burn U.S. flags during a ceremony to mark the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Tehran, Iran February 11, 2019. Meghdad Madadi/Tasnim News Agency/via REUTERS

Iranians burn U.S. flags during a ceremony to mark the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Tehran, Iran February 11, 2019. Meghdad Madadi/Tasnim News Agency/via REUTERS

U.S. AND ISRAELI “DOGS”

Marchers carried cardboard cutouts of dogs. One had the face of Trump and the other the face of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Yadollah Javani, the Revolutionary Guards’s deputy head for political affairs, said Iran would demolish cities in Israel to the ground if the United States attacked the Islamic Republic.

“The United States does not have the courage to shoot a single bullet at us despite all its defensive and military assets,” he was quoted as saying by state news agency IRNA.

State TV showed a cartoon of the Shah being thrown into the “dustbin of history”, wearing clothes in U.S. colors and holding Iranian newspapers headlined “The Shah has left!”

Khomeini returned from exile in France two weeks after the Shah and his wife flew to Aswan, Egypt. He was greeted by millions of supporters in Tehran. Revolutionaries later began executing supporters of the Shah including four top generals.

Washington and the Arab world have viewed Iran with

great suspicion since the Islamic Revolution, fearing Khomeini’s radical ideology would inspire militants across the Middle East.

Today, the United States and its Arab allies are trying to counter Tehran’s growing influence in the Middle East, where it has proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

“The world saw when Iran decided to help people of Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and Yemen, they achieved victory. The enemies are now confessing to their defeat,” said Rouhani.

Some Iranians criticize their leaders for what they say are foreign adventures which squander funds. Iranian leaders say they are protecting national interests.

Tehran was determined to expand its military power despite pressure from hostile states, Rouhani said.

Iran displayed its ballistic missile capabilities during a parade marking the anniversary, including the Zolfaqar, a ground-to-ground missile with a 700 km (435 miles) range and the Qiam, with a range of 800 km, according to Tasnim news agency.

Brigadier General Hossein Salami, the Revolutionary Guards deputy head, said Tehran would not withdraw forces from the region, dismissing U.S. calls for Iranian clout to be curbed.

(Additional reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafeddin in London and Babak Dehghanpisheh; Writing by Michael Georgy, Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, William Maclean)

‘Death to America’ aimed at Trump, not American nation, Iran leader says

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iranians will chant “Death to America” as long as Washington continues its hostile policies, but the slogan is directed at President Donald Trump and U.S. leaders, not the American nation, Iran’s supreme leader said on Friday.

“As long as America continues its wickedness, the Iranian nation will not abandon ‘Death to America’,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told a gathering of Iranian Air Force officers marking the 40th anniversary of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, according to his official website.

Trump pulled out of Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers last year and re-imposed sanctions on Tehran, dealing a blow to the country’s economy.

“‘Death to America’ means death to Trump, (National Security Adviser) John Bolton, and (Secretary of State Mike) Pompeo. It means death to American rulers,” Ayatollah Khamenei said.

European signatories of the nuclear deal have been trying to save the accord, but Khamenei said they could not be trusted.

“I recommend that one should not trust the Europeans just as the Americans,” Khamenei said. “We don’t say, don’t have contacts with them, but it’s an issue of trust.”

The European Union has stepped up criticism of Iran’s ballistic missiles program while remaining committed to the 2015 nuclear deal.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom, editing by Larry King)

‘Get out of Syria,’ Iran tells U.S.

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani speaks during his visit to the shrine of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, south of Tehran, Iran, January 30, 2019. Official President website/Handout via REUTERS

By Babak Dehghanpisheh

GENEVA (Reuters) – Senior Iranian figures said on Wednesday that Syria was a top foreign policy priority and American troops should withdraw, as planned by U.S. President Donald Trump.

“Whether they want to or not, the Americans must leave Syria,” Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was reported as saying.

There are fears in the West that Trump’s plan to extricate about 2,000 soldiers from Syria will cede influence to Tehran, which has backed President Bashar al-Assad in the nearly eight-year war, and also allow Islamic State militants to regroup.

“Now 90 percent of Syrian soil is under the control of the government and the rest will soon be freed by the Syrian army,” Velayati added during a meeting with Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem in Tehran, according to the Tasnim news agency.

President Hassan Rouhani told Moualem that peace in Syria was a priority. “One of the important regional and foreign policy goals of the Islamic Republic is the stability and complete security of Syria,” Tasnim quoted him as saying.

“And establishing normal conditions in Syria and the return of the people of this country to their normal lives.”

Moualem was in Tehran for negotiations before the meeting of leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran in the Russian Black Sea resort town Sochi on Feb. 14 over Syria.

Separately, Rear-Admiral Mahmoud Mousavi, a deputy commander of the regular armed forces, said on Wednesday that Iran plans to extend the range of its land-to-sea missiles beyond 300 kilometers (186 miles), according to the Fars news agency.

Iran has expanded its missile program, particularly its ballistic missiles, in defiance of opposition from the United States and expressions of concern by European countries.

Tehran says the program is purely defensive.

The European Union said on Monday it was gravely concerned by Iran’s ballistic missile launches and tests and urged it to stop activity that deepens mistrust and destabilizes the region.

(Reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

Iran warns Israel against further air strikes in Syria

FILE PHOTO: Admiral Ali Shamkhani, Iran?s Supreme National Security Council Director, speaks to the media after his arrival at Damascus airport, September 30, 2014. REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri/File Photo

LONDON/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Iran warned Israel on Tuesday of a “firm and appropriate” response if it continued attacking targets in Syria, where Tehran has backed President Bashar al-Assad and his forces in their nearly eight-year war against rebels and militants.

Without responding directly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nevertheless said it was important to block Iranian influence in Syria.

Israel, which views Tehran as its biggest security threat, has repeatedly attacked Iranian targets and those of allied militia in Syria. With an election looming in April, Israel has been increasingly open about carrying out air strikes.

In a meeting with Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem in Tehran, the secretary of Iran’s National Security Council Ali Shamkhani said the Israeli attacks violated Syria’s territorial integrity and were unacceptable.

“If these actions continue, we will activate some calculated measures as a deterrent and as a firm and appropriate response to teach a lesson to the criminal and lying rulers of Israel,” Shamkhani was quoted as saying by Fars news agency.

In Jerusalem, Netanyahu said he would hold talks in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Feb. 21, focussing on Iran’s threat along the Syrian border.

Moscow is a main backer of the Damascus government.

“It’s very important that we continue to prevent Iran from entrenching in Syria. In many ways we blocked that advance. But we are committed to continuously blocking it, continuously preventing Iran from creating another war front against us right here opposite the Golan Heights,” Netanyahu said.

In January, Israeli warplanes carried out a strike on what they called an Iranian arms cache in Syria, and Netanyahu has said attacks will continue.

Syria’s Moualem was quoted on Tuesday by a Hezbollah-run media unit as saying: “The Syrian government considers it to be its duty to keep Iranian security forces in Syrian territory.”

Iran has also repeatedly said it will keep forces there.

Moualem was in Tehran for negotiations before the meeting of the leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran in the Russian Black Sea resort town Sochi on Feb. 14 about the situation in Syria.

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Editing by Gareth Jones and Andrew Cawthorne)

Senate breaks from Trump with Syria troop vote

FILE PHOTO: Syrian schoolchildren walk as U.S. troops patrol near Turkish border in Hasakah, Syria Nov. 4, 2018. REUTERS/Rodi Said/File Photo

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Republican-led U.S. Senate backed largely symbolic legislation on Monday that broke with President Donald Trump by opposing plans for any abrupt withdrawal of troops from Syria and Afghanistan.

The Senate voted 70-26 in favor of a non-binding amendment, drafted by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, saying it was the sense of the Senate that Islamist militant groups in both countries still pose a “serious threat” to the United States.

The amendment acknowledged progress against Islamic State and al Qaeda in Syria and Afghanistan but warned that “a precipitous withdrawal” could destabilize the region and create a vacuum that could be filled by Iran or Russia.

It called on the Trump administration to certify conditions had been met for the groups’ “enduring defeat” before any significant withdrawal from Syria or Afghanistan.

Before the vote, McConnell said he introduced the bill so the Senate could “speak clearly and directly about the importance of the” missions in Afghanistan and Syria.

Passage was expected, after the Senate voted to advance it in a procedural vote last week. After concerns from some Democrats, the Senate approved a change to the bill making it clear the amendment was not intended to be a declaration of war or authorization to use military force.

The vote added the amendment to a broader Middle East security bill making its way through Congress. The Senate voted 72-24 to advance the broader bill in a procedural vote on Monday after the amendment vote.

To become law, however, the bill would need to pass the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, where it is unlikely to move without significant changes because of concerns about a provision addressing the “Boycott, Divest and Sanction” movement concerned with Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

The votes marked the second time in two months that the Senate supported a measure contradicting Trump’s foreign policy, although legislation to change his policies has yet to become law.

Several of Trump’s fellow Republicans strongly disagreed with his plans to withdraw 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria on the grounds that militants no longer pose a threat.

Senator Jim Risch, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, disputed before Monday’s vote that the amendment rebuked or insulted Trump. “As I read it, it recognizes … his effort for us to examine exactly what we are doing in these places,” Risch said.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Peter Cooney)