Trump leaves ‘question mark’ over use of force to protect Gulf oil

Flight deck of the U.S aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) is seen as sailors swip the deck for foreign object and debris (FOD) walk-down on the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) in Arabian Sea, May 19, 2019. Garrett LaBarge/U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS

By Babak Dehghanpisheh and Sylvia Westall

GENEVA/DUBAI (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said he was prepared to take military action to stop Tehran having a nuclear bomb but left open whether he would sanction the use of force to protect Gulf oil supplies.

Fears of a confrontation between Iran and the United States have mounted since Washington blamed long-time foe Iran for Thursday’s attacks on two oil tankers near the strategic Strait of Hormuz shipping lane.

Tehran denies responsibility but the incidents, and similar attacks in May, have further soured relations that have plummeted since Trump pulled the United States out of a landmark international nuclear deal with Iran in May of last year.

Since exiting the accord, which gave Iran sanctions relief in return for curbs on its nuclear program, Trump has restored and extended U.S. sanctions. That has forced countries around the world to boycott Iranian oil or face sanctions of their own.

But in an interview with Time magazine, Trump, striking a different tone from some Republican lawmakers who have urged a military approach to Iran, said last week’s tanker attacks in the Gulf of Oman had had only a “very minor” impact so far.

Asked if he would consider military action to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons or to ensure the free flow of oil through the Gulf, Trump said:

“I would certainly go over nuclear weapons, and I would keep the other a question mark.”

The 2015 nuclear deal with Iran aimed to head off any pathway to an Iranian nuclear bomb but Trump says the deal failed to address Iran’s missile program or punish it for waging proxy wars in Middle East countries.

Tehran has decried the toughening of U.S. sanctions and urged other signatories to take action to save the nuclear pact or see Iran turn its back on the deal.

CALLS FOR RESTRAINT

Iran said on Monday it would soon breach limits on how much-enriched uranium it can stockpile under a 2015 nuclear deal, which had sought to limit its nuclear capabilities.

Exceeding the uranium cap at the heart of the accord could prompt a diplomatic crisis, forcing the other signatories, which include China, Russia and European powers, to confront Iran.

The White House National Security Council condemned the statement as “nuclear blackmail” while Russia and China, two other signatories of the accord, on Tuesday urged restraint.

Russia told the United States it should drop what it called provocative plans to deploy more troops to the Middle East and cease actions that looked like a conscious attempt to provoke war with Iran, and urged restraint on all sides.

“What we see are unending and sustained U.S. attempts to crank up political, psychological, economic and yes military pressure on Iran in quite a provocative way,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was cited as saying by Russian media.

“They (these actions) cannot be assessed as anything but a conscious course to provoke war,” he said.

China’s top diplomat Wang Yi warned the world should not open a “Pandora’s Box” in the Middle East, as he denounced U.S. pressure on Iran and urged Tehran to heed the deal.

Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany, another signatory, was doing all it could to ease tensions with Iran but said Iran must abide by the 2015 deal.

IRAN DEFIANT

Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan on Monday announced the deployment of about 1,000 more troops to the Middle East for what he said were defensive purposes, citing concerns about a threat from Iran.

The deployment is in addition to a 1,500-troop increase announced last month in response to tanker attacks in May.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said in a speech that Iran did not seek war and dismissed U.S. efforts to isolate Iran.

“Iran will not wage war against any nation,” he said. “Despite all of the Americans’ efforts in the region and their desire to cut off our ties with all of the world and their desire to keep Iran secluded, they have been unsuccessful.”

Heightened Iran-U.S. tensions have stoked fears of increased violence in countries where Iran and its Gulf Arab regional rivals are locked in a sometimes bloody struggle for influence.

Saudi air defenses intercepted two drones fired by Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi group, Saudi media said on Tuesday. The group’s Al Masirah TV said the Houthis had sent drones to strike the airport of the Saudi city of Abha.

MILITARY BASE

Three rockets landed on a military base hosting U.S. forces north of Baghdad late on Monday, an Iraqi military statement said, without providing further details. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack.

U.S. officials said last month there was an increased threat from Iran-backed militias against U.S. interests in Iraq, and the U.S. embassy in Baghdad evacuated hundreds of staff.

The United States is discussing options with its allies on how to protect international shipping in the Gulf of Oman following the recent attacks, two senior Trump administration officials said last week.

A senior Gulf official said Washington was considering establishing a military coalition, including other nations, to protect oil tankers.

“We hope they will implement this proposal soon,” said the official, who said he had been briefed by a U.S. official and had heard details from Gulf “partners”.

(Additional reporting by Alexander Cornwell in Dubai, Tom Balmforth and Maxim Rodionov in Moscow, Ben Blanchard in Beijing, Writing by William Maclean, Editing by Janet Lawrence and Jon Boyle)

Tanker attacks seen as calibrated but risky Iranian response to U.S. sanctions

FILE PHOTO: An Iranian navy boat tackles a fire on an oil tanker after it was attacked in the Gulf of Oman, June 13, 2019. Tasnim News Agency/Handout via REUTERS

By Babak Dehghanpisheh

GENEVA (Reuters) – If, despite its firm denials, Iran was behind attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf last week and a further four last month, they represent a calibrated yet risky pushback against a U.S. sanctions squeeze, regional experts say.

The targeting of six vessels on a major artery for world oil supplies was a vivid reminder of the stakes involved in the standoff pitting Iran against the United States and its regional allies.

The latest two attacks, on Thursday, were much more complex than last month’s because the tankers were moving rather than at anchor as previously, said Hossein Aryan, a military analyst who served 18 years in Iran’s navy before and after the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Two government security sources, one American and one European, also noted the sophistication of the attacks, which damaged the tankers without seriously injuring anyone. They told reporters this indicated deliberate calculation.

The two sources, who declined to be named, said the attacks appeared designed to show that Iran could create chaos if it wanted to but at this point did not want to, perhaps in the hope of persuading the United States and other antagonists to back off rather than trigger conflict.

They did not provide direct evidence of Iranian involvement, but the United States and Saudi Arabia have blamed Iran publicly for both sets of attacks.

Whereas some U.S. sources said they believed Iran encouraged allied militants or militia to carry out last month’s attacks, the U.S. military has released a video and still images which it says show Iran’s Revolutionary Guards removing an unexploded limpet mine from one of the latest vessels to be targeted.

Tehran expressed concern over the May attacks and said the footage released after the latest ones by the United States military proved nothing and Iran was being made a scapegoat.

Germany said last week the video was not enough to apportion blame, while Britain said no other state or non-state actor could have been responsible. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for an independent investigation.

The head of the company which owns the Japanese tanker hit said last week its crew had reported flying objects damaged the ship, but Aryan said whoever attacked it and a Norwegian tanker had attached magnetic limpet mines with a timer when they were anchored or using a boat or marine drone when they were moving.

Iran’s military said on Monday that if it decided to block the Strait of Hormuz, a vital gateway in the Gulf for the oil industry, it would do so publicly, and both Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani have said Iran does not want war.

Tehran has been at pains to underline its capabilities, however.

“If attacked, we can make the maritime regions unsafe for the aggressors,” said an Iranian official who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation.

BACKFIRED?

Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at the Crisis Group think-tank, and other regional sources said that if Iran was responsible, it was clearly trying to show it could threaten global oil supply with a view to deterring the U.S. and its allies from further ratcheting up the pressure.

Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and other regional rivals are backing U.S. efforts to cut off Iran’s oil exports with pledges to boost their own oil production to keep prices stable. But a fifth of the world’s oil passes through the Gulf of Oman and the attacks hit vessels on both sides of the waterway.

“The message being sent by Iran is that we can disrupt operations on east and west. If they can’t export, no one should,” said a Gulf industry source who asked not to be identified.

U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from a 2015 international nuclear deal last year and reimposed sanctions, aiming to push Tehran to negotiate over its ballistic missile program and regional policy, which Washington says is destabilizing the Middle East.

Washington then sent an aircraft carrier, B-52 bombers and Patriot missiles to the region last month in a show of force against what U.S. officials say are Iranian threats to its troops and interests there.

Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan announced on Monday the deployment of about 1,000 more troops to the Middle East for what he said were defensive purposes, citing concerns about a threat from Iran.

Vaez said Tehran did not appear to have been cowed so far.

“The irony is that the U.S. maximum pressure strategy was supposed to temper Iranian behavior,” he said. “In practice, however, it has clearly backfired.”

LOW COST

Iran could use “relatively inexpensive asymmetric attacks to inflict costly damage,” according to Tom Sharpe, a former commander in Britain’s Royal Navy who is now a communications consultant.

“They have jet skis and fast boats that are trained for swarm attacks and just one £1,000  jet ski could disable a £1 billion warship,” he told Reuters.

Sharpe said the United States and Western allies were prepared to tackle such attacks.

But the ability of Iran-linked groups to strike goes beyond the Strait of Hormuz.

In the same week that the four oil tankers were attacked off the coast of the Emirates last month, Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthis struck two oil pumping stations within Saudi Arabia with armed drones.

A few days later, a rocket was fired near the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, which had already evacuated non-emergency staff a week after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a surprise trip to Baghdad to talk to Iraqi officials about U.S. concerns of threats from Iran-backed militias.

Two Iran-backed Iraqi paramilitary groups said talk of threats was “psychological warfare” by Washington.

During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, both Iran and Iraq attacked tankers and merchant ships in the Gulf, which drew the United States into the conflict.

Iran learned lessons from that period, which became known as the “Tanker War,” and now has many more tools at its disposal, such as mines and speed boats, to use in asymmetric warfare to send a signal, Aryan said.

“That signal is to show to the Arab states and to the United States that, despite all their military might and presence in the region, the lines of communication in the region are vulnerable, and to show that vulnerability.”

The danger for Iran, if it is pursuing that strategy, is that a small incident could quickly escalate, observers say.

“This is an extremely risky strategy,” said Ali Alfoneh, senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “The gamble of Islamic Republic strategists … may end up provoking a war Iran can ill afford.”

(Reporting By Babak Dehghanpisheh; additional reporting by Mark Hosenball in Washington, Julia Payne in London and Parisa Hafezi and Rania El Gamal in Dubai; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

Don’t open ‘Pandora’s Box’ in Middle East, China warns

FILE PHOTO: Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi attends a news conference with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez (not pictured) at Diaoyutai state guesthouse in Beijing, China May 29, 2019. REUTERS/Florence Lo

By Ben Blanchard

BEIJING (Reuters) – The Chinese government’s top diplomat warned on Tuesday that the world should not open a “Pandora’s Box” in the Middle East, as he denounced U.S. pressure on Iran and called on it not to drop out of a landmark nuclear deal.

Fears of a confrontation between Iran and the United States have mounted since last Thursday when two oil tankers were attacked in the Gulf of Oman.

The United States blamed Iran for the attacks, more than a year after President Donald Trump withdrew from a 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

Iran denied involvement in the tanker attacks and said on Monday it would soon breach limits on how much enriched uranium it can stockpile under the deal, which had sought to limit its nuclear capabilities.

Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan announced on the same day the deployment of about 1,000 more troops to the Middle East for what he said were defensive purposes, citing concerns about a threat from Iran.

Speaking in Beijing after meeting Syria’s foreign minister, Chinese State Councillor Wang Yi said the United States should not use “extreme pressure” to resolve issues with Iran.

Wang told reporters that China was “of course, very concerned” about the situation in the Gulf and with Iran, and called on all sides to ease tension and not head towards a clash.

“We call on all sides to remain rational and exercise restraint, and not take any escalatory actions that irritate regional tensions, and not open a Pandora’s box,” Wang said.

“In particular, the U.S. side should alter its extreme pressure methods,” Wang said.

“Any unilateral behavior has no basis in international law. Not only will it not resolve the problem, it will only create an even greater crisis.”

Wang also said that the Iran nuclear deal was the only feasible way to resolve its nuclear issue, and he urged Iran to be prudent.

“We understand that relevant parties may have different concerns but first of all the comprehensive nuclear deal should be properly implemented,” he added. “We hope that Iran is cautious with its decision-making and not lightly abandon this agreement.”

At the same time, China hopes other parties respect Iran’s legitimate lawful rights and interests, Wang said.

China and Iran have close energy ties, and China has been angered by U.S. threats against countries and companies that violate U.S. sanctions by importing Iranian oil, including Chinese firms.

China has had to walk a fine line as it has also been cultivating relations with Iran’s regional rival, Saudi Arabia, the Asian giant’s top oil supplier.

Iran’s foreign minister has visited China twice this year already. Saudi Arabia’s crown prince has also visited Beijing this year.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Writing by Se Young Lee and Michael Martina; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Robert Birsel)

Iran supreme leader says he has no intention to make or use nuclear weapons

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei meets with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tehran, Iran June 13, 2019. Official Khamenei website/Handout via REUTERS

TOKYO (Reuters) – Iran has no intention of making or using nuclear weapons, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was quoted as saying on Thursday by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Khamenei’s comment, a reiteration of Iran’s stance, comes at a time of increased U.S.-Iranian tension, a year after Washington abandoned an agreement between Iran and world powers to curb its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of international financial sanctions.

“Supreme Leader Khamenei made a comment that the country will not and should not make, hold or use nuclear weapons, and that it has no such intentions,” Abe told reporters in Tehran following a meeting with Khamenei.

“Today, I met Supreme Leader Khamenei and heard his belief in peace. I regard this highly as a major progress toward this region’s peace and stability,” said Abe, the first-ever Japanese prime minister to hold talks with Khamenei.

Abe’s comment was broadcast on Japanese public broadcaster NHK.

On Wednesday, Abe warned of unintended clashes in the crisis-hit Middle East after meeting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

Abe was visiting Iran to help ease rising tension between the United States and the Islamic Republic.

Japan is in a unique position to act as a mediator as the U.S. ally has long maintained close ties with Iran.

(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Tanker attacks in Gulf of Oman fuel security, oil supply fears

An oil tanker is seen after it was attacked at the Gulf of Oman, June 13, 2019. ISNA/Handout via REUTERS

By Lisa Barrington and Rania El Gamal

DUBAI (Reuters) – Attacks on two oil tankers on Thursday in the Gulf of Oman left one ablaze and both adrift, shipping firms said, driving oil prices up 4% over worries about Middle East supplies.

The Front Altair was on fire in waters between Gulf Arab states and Iran after an explosion that a source blamed on a magnetic mine. The crew of the Norwegian vessel were picked up by a vessel in the area and passed to an Iranian rescue boat.

A second Japanese-owned tanker was abandoned after being hit by a suspected torpedo, the firm that chartered the ship said. The crew were also picked up.

The attacks were the second in a month near the Strait of Hormuz, a major strategic waterway for world oil supplies.

The United States and Saudi Arabia blamed Iran for last month’s attacks using limpet mines on four tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, a charge Tehran denies.

There were no immediate statements apportioning blame after Thursday’s incidents.

“We need to remember that some 30% of the world’s (seaborne) crude oil passes through the straits. If the waters are becoming unsafe, the supply to the entire Western world could be at risk,” said Paolo Amico, chairman of INTERTANKO tanker association.

Tensions have risen since President Donald Trump, who has demanded Tehran curb its military programs and influence in the Middle East, pulled the United States out of a deal between Iran and global powers to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

Thursday’s attacks came as Shinzo Abe – prime minister of U.S. ally Japan, a big importer of Iranian oil until Washington ratcheted up sanctions – was visiting Tehran with a message from Trump. Abe urged all sides not to let tensions escalate.

The Bahrain-based U.S. Navy Fifth Fleet said it was assisting the two tankers on Thursday after receiving distress calls. Britain said it was “deeply concerned” about Thursday’s reported explosions and was working with partners on the issue.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif described Thursday’s incidents as “suspicious” on Twitter, noting they occurred during Abe’s Tehran visit. The minister called for regional dialogue.

Oman and the United Arab Emirates, which both have coastlines along the Gulf of Oman, did not immediately issue any public comment.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE, both majority Sunni Muslim nations with a long-running rivalry with predominantly Shi’ite Iran, have previously said attacks on oil assets in the Gulf pose a risk to global oil supplies and regional security.

An oil tanker is seen after it was attacked at the Gulf of Oman, June 13, 2019. ISNA/Handout via REUTERS

An oil tanker is seen after it was attacked at the Gulf of Oman, June 13, 2019. ISNA/Handout via REUTERS

EXPLOSION

Bernhard Schulte Ship management said the Kokuka Courageous was damaged in a “suspected attack” that breached the hull above the waterline while transporting methanol from Saudi Arabia to Singapore.

It said the ship was afloat and the crew safe with one minor injury reported.

A shipping broker said the blast that struck the Kokuka Courageous might have been caused by a magnetic mine. “Kokuka Courageous is adrift without any crew on board,” the source said.

Japan’s Kokuka Sangyo, owner of the Kokuka Courageous, said its ship was hit twice over a three-hour period.

Taiwan’s state oil refiner CPC said the Front Altair, owned by Norway’s Frontline, was “suspected of being hit by a torpedo” around 0400 GMT carrying a Taiwan-bound cargo of 75,000 tonnes of petrochemical feedstock naphtha, which Refinitiv Eikon data showed had been picked up from Ruwais in the UAE.

Frontline said its vessel was on fire but afloat, denying a report by the Iranian news agency IRNA that the vessel had sunk.

Front Altair’s 23-member crew abandoned ship after the blast and were picked up by the nearby Hyundai Dubai vessel. The crew was then passed to an Iranian rescue boat, Hyundai Merchant Marine said in a statement.

Iranian search and rescue teams picked up 44 sailors from the two damaged tankers and took them to the Iranian port of Jask, Iran’s IRNA reported.

Thursday’s attacks came a day after Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthis fired a missile on an airport in Saudi Arabia, injuring 26 people. The Houthis also claimed an armed drone strike last month on Saudi oil pumping stations.

Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei told Abe during his visit to Iran that Tehran would not repeat its “bitter experience” of negotiating with the United States, state media reported.

“I do not see Trump as worthy of any message exchange, and I do not have any reply for him, now or in future,” the Iranian leader said.

(Reporting by Koustav Samanta and Jessica Jaganathan in Singapore, Liang-Sa Loh and Yimou Lee in Taipei, Terje Solsvik in Oslo, Ghaida Ghantous in Dubai, Hyunjoo Jin in Seoul and Jonathan Saul in London; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Jon Boyle and Alison Williams)

Iran’s Khamenei: Tehran will not abandon its missile program

FILE PHOTO: Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks on television after voting in a presidential election in Tehran, June 12, 2009. REUTERS/Caren Firouz//File Photo

LONDON (Reuters) – Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Tuesday that Tehran would not be “deceived” by U.S. President Donald Trump’ss offer of negotiations and would not give up its missile program.

Iran and the United States have been drawn into a starker confrontation in the past month, a year after Washington pulled out of a deal between Iran and global powers to curb Tehran’s nuclear program in return for lifting international sanctions.

Trump has condemned the nuclear deal, signed by his predecessor Barack Obama, as flawed for not being permanent and for not covering Iran’s ballistic missile program and its role in conflicts around the Middle East. He has called on Iran to come to negotiating table to reach a new deal.

Trump said last week that Iran “has a chance to be a great country, with the same leadership. We’re not looking for regime change. I just want to make that clear. We’re looking for no nuclear weapons.”

Reacting to those comments, Khamenei said in a speech broadcast on state television: “The U.S. president recently said Iran can achieve development with its current leaders. That means they do not seek regime change … But this political trick will not deceive Iranian officials and the Iranian nation.”

“In the missile program, they know we have reached a point of deterrence and stability. They want to deprive us from it, but they will never succeed,” Khamenei said, speaking at a ceremony marking the 30th anniversary of the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Khamenei said U.S. sanctions have created hardship for Iranians and called on the government to make improving economic conditions its top priority.

President Hassan Rouhani, who has taken a softer stance, suggested last week that Iran might be willing to hold talks if the United States showed it respect and lifted sanctions.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Sunday the United States was prepared to engage with Iran without pre-conditions about its nuclear program. Iran dismissed the offer as “word-play”.

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin; Editing by Gareth Jones and Frances Kerry)

U.S. top security adviser says threat from Iran is not over

FILE PHOTO: U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton speaks during a graduation ceremony at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, U.S., May 22, 2019. REUTERS/Michelle McLoughlin

LONDON (Reuters) – The threat from Iran is not over but quick action from the United States has helped deter it, White House National Security Adviser John Bolton said on Thursday.

The U.S. military has sent forces, including an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers, to the Middle East in a move that U.S. officials said was made to counter “clear indications” of threats from Iran to American forces in the region.

“I don’t think this threat is over, but I do think you can make at least a conditional claim that the quick response and the deployment and other steps that we took did serve as a deterrent,” Bolton told reporters during a visit to London.

Asked whether he was at odds with President Donald Trump, who said earlier this week that the U.S. was not looking for regime change in Iran, he said: “The policy we’re pursuing is not a policy of regime change. That’s the fact and everybody should understand it that way.”

Bolton said there was some prospect that evidence Iran was behind attacks this month on oil tankers in the Gulf would be presented to the United Nations Security Council next week.

“I don’t think anybody who is familiar with the situation in the region, whether they have examined the evidence or not, has come to any conclusion other than that these attacks were carried out by Iran or their surrogates,” he said.

(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge and William James, Writing by Kylie MacLellan; Editing by Alistair Smout)

Saudi Arabia seeks Arab unity over Iran after attacks

Iraq's President Barham Salih arrives to attend the meeting for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Arab and Islamic summits in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia May 30, 2019. The Presidency of the Republic of Iraq Office/Handout via REUTERS

By Aziz El Yaakoubi and Marwa Rashad

MECCA, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia prepared to hold emergency Arab summits on Thursday to deliver a strong message to Iran over regional security after attacks on Gulf oil assets this month as American officials said a U.S. military deployment had deterred Tehran.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have lobbied Washington to contain foe Shi’ite Muslim Iran, have said they want to avoid war after drone strikes on oil pumping stations in the kingdom and the sabotage of tankers off the UAE.

Riyadh accused Tehran of ordering the drone strikes, which were claimed by Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi group. U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said on Thursday that evidence of Iran being behind the tanker attacks would be presented to the United Nations Security Council as early as next week.

Tehran denies any involvement in either one.

Saudi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Assaf said ahead of the two late night summits of Sunni Muslim Gulf leaders and Arab leaders, that the attacks must be addressed with “strength and firmness”.

“While summit leaders are likely to discuss how best to avoid a war, King Salman is equally determined to defend Saudi and Arab interests amid increasing tensions between the U.S. and Iran,” Prince Turki al-Faisal, former Saudi intelligence chief and envoy, wrote in an opinion piece published by Al Arabiya.

Tensions have risen between the United States and Iran after Washington quit a multinational nuclear deal with Iran, re-imposed sanctions and boosted its military presence in the Gulf.

Bolton has said that Iranian mines were “almost certainly” used in the tanker attacks, which he described as being connected to the strike on pumping stations on the kingdom’s East-West pipeline and a rocket attack on Baghdad’s Green Zone.

An Iranian official dismissed Bolton’s remarks as “a ludicrous claim”. The Islamic Republic has said it would defend itself against any military or economic aggression.

DETERRING IRAN

Bolton and the U.S. special envoy for Iran, Brian Hook, told reporters on Thursday that a repositioning of U.S. military assets in the region had succeeded in deterring Iran.

Bolton, speaking in London, said it would be a big mistake if Iran or its surrogates in the region attacked U.S. interests. Hook told a news conference call that the United States would respond with military force if that happens.

Last week the Pentagon announced the deployment of 900 additional troops to the Middle East and extended the stay of another 600 service members, after speeding up deployment of an aircraft carrier strike group and sending bombers and additional Patriot missiles.

The United States and the UAE, which hosts a U.S. air base, on Wednesday activated a defense cooperation agreement signed earlier this year.

Gulf states have a joint defense force under the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), but the 39-year-old alliance has been fractured by a dispute that has seen Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and non-GCC Egypt impose a political and economic boycott on Qatar since mid-2017.

Saudi King Salman invited Qatar’s ruler, whose country is home to the largest U.S. military base in the region, to the summits. Doha is sending Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser Al Thani, the highest level Qatari official to visit the kingdom since the rift.

Iraq and Oman, which have good ties with Tehran and Washington, have said they are working to reduce tensions. Doha, which shares a giant gas field with Iran, has offered to help.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on a trip to Iraq this month that Tehran wanted balanced ties with Gulf neighbors and had proposed signing a non-aggression pact with them.

UAE newspaper Gulf News said in an editorial, which are usually state-approved, that the offer was “bizarre” and that Gulf states were not buying Iran’s “‘nice neighbor’ routine”.

(Additional reporting by Guy Faulconbridge in London, Lisa Barrington, Sylvia Westall and Maher Chmaytelli in Dubai and Eric Knecht in Doha; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by William Maclean, Andrew Cawthorne and Frances Kerry)

Fake social media accounts spread pro-Iran messages during U.S. midterms: FireEye

FILE PHOTO: A staff member removes the Iranian flag from the stage after a group picture with foreign ministers and representatives of the U.S., Iran, China, Russia, Britain, Germany, France and the European Union during Iran nuclear talks at the Vienna International Center in Vienna, Austria, July 14, 2015. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Christopher Bing

(Reuters) – A network of fake social media accounts impersonated political candidates and journalists to spread messages in support of Iran and against U.S. President Donald Trump around the 2018 congressional elections, cybersecurity firm FireEye said on Tuesday.

The findings show how unidentified, possibly government-backed, groups could manipulate social media platforms to promote stories and other content that can influence the opinions of American voters, the researchers said.

This particular operation was largely focused on promoting “anti-Saudi, anti-Israeli, and pro-Palestinian themes,” according to the report by FireEye.

The campaign was organized through a series of fake personas that created various social media accounts, including on Twitter and Facebook. Most of these accounts were created last year and have since been taken down, the report said.

Spokespersons for Twitter and Facebook confirmed FireEye’s finding that the fake accounts were created on their platforms.

Lee Foster, a researcher with FireEye, said he found some of the fake personas – often masquerading as American journalists – had successfully convinced several U.S. news outlets to publish letters to the editor, guest columns and blog posts.

These writings displayed both progressive and conservative views, the report said, covering topics including the Trump administration’s designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization.

“We’re assessing with low confidence that this network was organized to support Iranian political interests,” said Foster. “However, we’re not at the point where we can say who was doing it or where it’s coming from. The investigation is ongoing.”

Before the 2018 midterms election, the nameless group created Twitter accounts that also impersonated both Republican and Democratic congressional candidates. It is unclear if the fake accounts had any effect on their campaigns.

The imposter Twitter accounts often plagiarized messages from the politicians’ legitimate accounts, but also mixed in posts voicing support for policies believed to be favorable to Tehran. Affected politicians included Jineea Butler, a Republican candidate for New York’s 13th District, and Marla Livengood, a Republican candidate for California’s 9th District. Both Livengood and Butler lost in the election.

Livengood’s campaign called the situation “clearly an attempt by bad actors” to hurt her campaign, and noted that Livengood was “a strident opponent of nuclear weapons in Iran.”

Butler could not be immediately reached for comment.

Twitter said in a statement that it had “removed this network of 2,800 inauthentic accounts originating in Iran at the beginning of May,” adding that its investigation was ongoing.

Facebook said it had removed 51 Facebook accounts, 36 Pages, seven Groups and three Instagram accounts connected to the influence operation. Instagram is owned by Facebook.

The activity on Facebook was less expansive than that on Twitter and it appeared to be more narrowly focused, said Facebook head of cybersecurity policy Nathaniel Gleicher. The inauthentic Facebook accounts instead often privately messaged high profile figures, including journalists, policy-makers and Iranian dissidents, to promote certain issues.

Facebook also concluded the activity had originated in Iran.

(Reporting by Christopher Bing; editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Susan Thomas)

Iran sees no prospect of negotiations with U.S.: foreign ministry

FILE PHOTO: A staff member removes the Iranian flag from the stage after a group picture with foreign ministers and representatives of the U.S., Iran, China, Russia, Britain, Germany, France and the European Union during Iran nuclear talks at the Vienna International Center in Vienna, Austria, July 14, 2015. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo

LONDON (Reuters) – Iran sees no prospect of negotiations with the United States, a foreign ministry spokesman said on Tuesday, a day after U.S. President Donald Trump said a deal with Tehran on its nuclear program was possible.

Washington withdrew last year from a 2015 international nuclear deal with Tehran, and is ratcheting up sanctions in efforts to strangle Iran’s economy by ending its international sales of crude oil.

Trump said on Monday: “I really believe that Iran would like to make a deal, and I think that’s very smart of them, and I think that’s a possibility to happen.”

Asked about Trump’s comments in a news conference in Tehran, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi was quoted as saying by the semi-official Fars news agency: “We currently see no prospect of negotiations with America.”

“Iran pays no attention to words; What matters to us is a change of approach and behavior.”

Trump also said that United States was not looking for regime change in Iran, adding that “we are looking for no nuclear weapons.”

Iranian Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri said on Tuesday the country was not allowed to pursue the development of nuclear weapon as this was banned by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s highest authority.

Tensions have risen between Iran and the United States since Washington deployed a carrier strike group and bombers and announced plans to deploy 1,500 troops to the Middle East, prompting fears of a conflict.

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin; Editing by Andrew Heavens and John Stonestreet)