U.S. considers ‘all options’ on Iran in seemingly tougher stance

By Arshad Mohammed, John Irish and Parisa Hafezi

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States is ready to consider “all options” if Iran is unwilling to return to the 2015 nuclear deal, U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley said on Wednesday in what may reflect a tougher stance toward Tehran’s new government.

In addition to using the phrase “all options,” which is typically intended to include the possibility – however remote – of military action, Malley also said the United States and Israel were united in opposing Iran developing a nuclear weapon.

Beyond citing U.S. consultation with Israel, which has previously struck nuclear sites in Iraq and Syria, Malley also said he would soon travel to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar to coordinate with the U.S. Gulf allies.

“We will be prepared to adjust to a different reality in which we have to deal with all options to address Iran’s nuclear program if it’s not prepared to come back into the constraints” of Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with six major powers, he said in a virtual appearance at a Washington think tank.

Taken together, the comments suggested a more coercive rhetorical stance toward Tehran if it were unwilling to resume compliance with the deal, under which Tehran had agreed to limit its uranium enrichment program – which is a possible pathway to fissile material for a weapon – in return for sanctions relief.

Malley stressed it was still Washington’s preference for the United States, which abandoned the nuclear deal in 2018 during the Trump administration, and Iran, which began violating its nuclear limits about a year later, to both resume compliance.

Iran struck the deal, formally named the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in 2015 with Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States.

“There is every possibility that Iran will choose a different path, and we need to coordinate with Israel and other partners in the region. I will be traveling to Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar in just a matter of days to talk about efforts to come back to (JCPOA) and what options we have to control Iran’s nuclear program if we can’t achieve that goal,” Malley said.

He said the two sides had made headway in their first six rounds of indirect talks in Vienna about reviving the deal, but he suggested the new Iranian government under President Ebrahim Raisi, who took office in August, may adopt a different stance.

Raisi’s aides have said Iran will return to Vienna “soon” but not set a date.

The European Union coordinator on Iran, Enrique Mora, plans to hold talks in Tehran on Thursday, a visit that comes at a critical time in efforts to revive nuclear talks with world powers and cannot be considered as “business as usual” given the worsening nuclear situation on the ground, E3 diplomats said.

“We do not see this visit as ‘business as usual,’ but rather as a crucial visit in the crisis,” diplomats from Britain, Germany and France said in a note on Wednesday.

(Reporting By Arshad Mohammed; Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Dubai and John Irish in Paris; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Nick Macfie)

Israel foreign minister visits Bahrain to sign deals, open embassy

DUBAI (Reuters) -Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid flew to Bahrain on Thursday on the highest-level Israeli visit to the Gulf state since the countries established formal relations last year.

Lapid, who landed at Bahrain’s international airport in an Israir plane with an olive branch painted on its nose, met Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and Crown Prince and Prime Minister Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa.

He also held talks with his Bahraini counterpart and will inaugurate Israel’s embassy in Manama.

“His Majesty’s leadership and inspiration have led to true cooperation and our meeting outlined the path forward for our relationship,” Lapid said on Twitter after meeting the king.

Bahrain and Gulf neighbor United Arab Emirates normalized relations with Israel last year in a U.S.-brokered deal known as the Abraham Accords that built on shared business interests and worries about Iran. Sudan and Morocco followed suit.

“We see Bahrain as an important partner, on the bilateral level but also as a bridge to cooperate with other countries in the region,” an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson said.

The accords had been denounced by the Palestinians as abandoning a unified position under which Arab states would make peace only if Israel gave up occupied land.

In Gaza, the Islamist Hamas group criticized Bahrain for hosting Lapid, who returns to Israel on Thursday evening. Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem said this represented “an encouragement” of what he described as Israeli “crimes against our Palestinian people and their sacred sites”.

The accords have also been criticized by Bahraini opposition figures, speaking largely from abroad, as well as locals who stand against normalization.

The island state, which quashed an uprising led mostly by Shi’ite Muslim members of its population in 2011, saw some sporadic acts of protest after the pact was signed.

On Thursday Bahraini activists circulated on social media images of what appeared to be small protests in Bahrain, including some tire burnings. Reuters was unable to independently verify these.

The Sunni-ruled kingdom, host to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, accuses Iran of stoking unrest in Bahrain, a charge that Tehran denies.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry said five memorandums of understanding will be signed, including cooperation agreements between hospitals and water and power companies.

Bahrain’s Gulf Air is due to make its first direct commercial flight to Tel Aviv later in the day.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller, Nidal Al Mughrabi and Lisa Barrington; Editing by Giles Elgood, Emelia Sithole-Matarise, William Maclean)

At U.N., Israeli PM Bennett says Iran has crossed all nuclear “red lines”

By Michelle Nichols, Matt Spetalnick and Stephen Farrell

NEW YORK (Reuters) -Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Monday that Iran had crossed “all red lines” in its nuclear program and vowed that Israel would not allow Tehran to acquire a nuclear weapon.

In his first speech before the United Nations General Assembly, Bennett said Iran sought to dominate the Middle East under a “nuclear umbrella” and urged a more concerted international effort to halt Iran’s nuclear activities.

But he also hinted at the potential for Israel to act on its own against Iran, something it has repeatedly threatened in the past.

“Iran’s nuclear program has hit a watershed moment, and so has our tolerance,” Bennett said. “Words do not stop centrifuges from spinning.”

Bennett, a far-right politician who ended Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12-year run as prime minister in June, wants U.S. President Joe Biden to harden his stance against Iran, Israel’s regional arch-foe. He opposes the new U.S. administration’s efforts to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that Biden’s White House predecessor, Donald Trump, abandoned in 2018.

Indirect U.S.-Iran talks in Vienna have stalled as Washington awaits the next move by Iran’s new hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi.

Bennett struck a less combative tone before the United Nations than Netanyahu, who often relied on props and visual aids to dramatize his accusations against Iran, an approach that critics derided as political stunts.

But Bennett has been just as adamant as Netanyahu was in pledging to do whatever is necessary to prevent Iran, which Israel views as an existential threat, from building a nuclear weapon. Iran consistently denies it is seeking a bomb.

“Iran’s nuclear weapons program is at a critical point. All red lines have been crossed, inspections ignored,” Bennett said. “They’re getting away with it.”

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols at the UN, Matt Spetalnick in Washington and Stephen Farrell in London, additional reporting by Zainah El-Haroun and Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem; Editing by Alex Richardson)

Iran wants resumption of nuclear talks that leads to lifting U.S. sanctions -Raisi

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran wants a resumption of nuclear talks with world powers to lead to the removal of U.S. sanctions, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi told the annual U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday in a pre-recorded address.

“The Islamic Republic considers the useful talks whose ultimate outcome is the lifting of all oppressive (U.S.) sanctions,” Raisi said in his address.

Hardline cleric Raisi, who is under personal U.S. sanctions over allegations of human rights abuses in his past as a judge, said the U.S. sanctions, imposed by former President Donald Trump in 2018, “were crimes against humanity during the coronavirus pandemic.”

Harsh sanctions reimposed by Trump since 2018 have prompted Tehran to violate the deal’s limits. However, Tehran says its nuclear steps are reversible if Washington lifts all sanctions.

Indirect talks between Iran and the United States to revive the 2015 nuclear pact stopped two days after Raisi was elected as Iran’s president in June. Parties involved in the negotiations have yet to announce when the next round of negotiations will resume.

However, Tehran said on Tuesday that talks with world powers in Vienna to reinstate the nuclear pact would resume in a few weeks.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Chris Reese and Leslie Adler)

Biden, Israeli PM begin talks in shadow of Afghan attack

By Trevor Hunnicutt and Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett began their first White House meeting on Friday, with Iran topping the agenda, even as the U.S. leader grappled with the aftermath of a deadly suicide bombing in Kabul during the chaotic U.S. evacuation from Afghanistan.

After a one-day delay due to the Islamic State attack that killed 13 U.S. troops and 72 Afghans, Biden and Bennett met to reset the tone of U.S.-Israeli relations and search for common ground on Iran despite differences on how to address Tehran’s nuclear program.

Tensions complicated relations between Bennett’s predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, who was close to former President Donald Trump, and the last Democratic administration led by Barack Obama with Biden as his vice president.

But the meeting, the first since the two men took office this year, was eclipsed by Thursday’s attack outside Kabul airport during a U.S. withdrawal that has posed the biggest crisis of Biden’s young presidency.

U.S. forces helping to evacuate Afghans desperate to flee new Taliban rule were on alert for more attacks on Friday.

Biden called the Israeli leader and “thanked (him) for his understanding of the change in time of their meeting, in light of the events in Afghanistan,” Bennett’s office said in a statement.

He said Israel shared America’s sorrow over the deaths.

The delay means that Bennett, an Orthodox Jew who does not travel on the Sabbath, will remain in Washington until after sundown on Saturday.

Iran, one of the thorniest issues between the Biden administration and Israel, was expected to be the main focus of their talks.

Bennett, a far-right politician who ended Netanyahu’s 12-year run as prime minister in June, intended to press Biden to harden his approach to Iran and back out of negotiations to revive an international nuclear deal with Tehran that Trump abandoned.

Biden was expected to tell Bennett that he shares Israel’s concern that Iran has expanded its nuclear program but remains committed for now to diplomacy with Tehran, a senior administration official said earlier.

Bennett has sought to move on from Netanyahu’s combative style and instead manage disagreements behind closed doors.

But he has been just as adamant as Netanyahu was in pledging to do whatever is necessary to prevent Iran, which Israel views as an existential threat, from building a nuclear weapon. Iran consistently denies it is seeking a bomb.

The visit gave Biden an opportunity to demonstrate business as usual with a key partner while contending with the volatile situation in Afghanistan.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Biden and Bennett are also far apart. Biden has renewed backing for a two-state solution after Trump distanced himself from that longstanding tenet of U.S. policy. Bennett opposes Palestinian statehood.

(Additional reporting by Stephen Farrell in Jerusalem; Editing by Howard Goller)

Biden, Israeli PM seek to reset relations, narrow differences on Iran

By Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Thursday will seek to reset the tone of U.S.-Israeli relations in their first White House meeting and find common ground on Iran despite differences on how to deal with its nuclear program.

In talks overshadowed by the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the two leaders will try to turn the page on years of tensions between Bennett’s predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, who was close to former President Donald Trump, and the last Democratic administration led by Barack Obama with Biden as his vice president.

The meeting, originally scheduled for Thursday morning, was delayed until later in the day, U.S. and Israeli officials said, while Biden held consultations with top aides about two explosions near Kabul’s airport amid a frantic evacuation effort from Afghanistan.

Suspected suicide bombers struck, causing a bloodbath among desperate civilians hoping to flee. A Taliban official said at least 13 people were killed. The Pentagon said U.S. personnel were among those hurt.

In what was planned as a low-key meeting, Bennett wants to move on from Netanyahu’s combative public style and instead manage disagreements constructively behind closed doors between Washington and its closest Middle East ally.

The visit gives Biden an opportunity to demonstrate business as usual with a key partner while contending with the complex situation in Afghanistan. Biden’s biggest foreign policy crisis since taking office has not only hurt his approval ratings at home but raised questions about his credibility among both friends and foes.

Topping the agenda is Iran, one of the thorniest issues between the Biden administration and Israel.

Bennett, a far-right politician who ended Netanyahu’s 12-year run as prime minister in June, is expected to press Biden to harden his approach to Iran and halt negotiations aimed at reviving the international nuclear deal that Trump abandoned.

Biden will tell Bennett that he shares Israel’s concern that Iran has expanded its nuclear program but remains committed for now to diplomacy with Tehran, a senior administration official said. U.S.-Iran negotiations have stalled as Washington awaits the next move by Iran’s new hardline president.

Briefing reporters ahead of the meeting, the official said: “Since the last administration left the Iran nuclear deal, Iran’s nuclear program has just dramatically broken out of the box.”

The official said that if the diplomatic path with Iran fails, “there are other avenues to pursue,” but did not elaborate.

Bennett has been less openly combative but just as adamant as Netanyahu was in pledging to do whatever is necessary to prevent Iran, which Israel views as an existential threat, from building a nuclear weapon. Iran consistently denies it is seeking a bomb.

The two leaders are expected to speak briefly to a small pool of reporters during their Oval Office meeting but there will not be a joint news conference, limiting the potential for public disagreement.

AT ODDS ON PALESTINIAN ISSUES

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Biden and Bennett are also divided. Biden has renewed backing for a two-state solution after Trump distanced himself from that long-standing tenet of U.S. policy. Bennett opposes Palestinian statehood.

The consensus among Biden’s aides is that now is not the time to push for a resumption of long-dormant peace talks or major Israeli concessions, which could destabilize Bennett’s ideologically diverse coalition.

But Biden’s aides have not ruled out asking Bennett for modest gestures to help avoid a recurrence of the fierce Israel-Hamas fighting in the Gaza Strip that caught the new U.S. administration flat-footed earlier this year.

Among the issues that could be raised in Thursday’s talks is the Biden administration’s goal of re-establishing a consulate in Jerusalem that served the Palestinians and which Trump closed. Biden’s aides have moved cautiously on the issue.

The administration has also emphasized that it opposes further expansion of Jewish settlements on occupied land.

Bennett, 49, the son of American immigrants to Israel, has been a vocal proponent of settlement building.

Biden’s advisers are also mindful that Israeli officials may be concerned about the apparent failure of U.S. intelligence to predict the swift fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban.

Biden intends to reassure Bennett that the end of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan does not reflect a “de-prioritizing” of the U.S. commitment to Israel and other Middle East allies, the senior U.S. official said.

Biden will also discuss with Bennett behind-the-scenes efforts to get more Arab countries to normalize relations with Israel, the senior U.S. official said. This would follow in the footsteps of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco, which reached accords with Israel brokered by the Trump administration.

On Wednesday, Bennett met U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. He was expected to discuss, among other issues, the replenishing of the Iron Dome missile defense system that Israel relies on to fend off rocket attacks from Gaza.

(Reporting By Matt Spetalnick; additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Steve Holland in Washington; writing by Matt Spetalnick; editing by Grant McCool)

U.S. confident Iran carried out attack on tanker – Secretary Blinken

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States is confident that Iran carried out a drone attack on an Israeli-managed tanker transiting through international waters near Oman on Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Monday.

“I want to condemn again the attack on Friday against the commercial ship … We’ve conducted a thorough review and we’re confident that Iran carried out this attack,” Blinken said at a regular news briefing.

(Reporting by Simon Lewis, Doyinsola Oladipo, Daphne Psaledakis and Jonathan Landay; Editing by Chris Reese)

Iran insists it can enrich uranium to 90% purity – weapons grade – if needed

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) -Iran said on Wednesday it could enrich uranium up to 90% purity — weapons grade — if its nuclear reactors needed it, but added it still sought the revival of a 2015 deal that would limit its atomic program in return for a lifting of sanctions.

President Hassan Rouhani’s remark is his second such public comment this year about 90% enrichment — a level suitable for a nuclear bomb — underlining Iran’s resolve to keep breaching the deal in the absence of any accord to revive it.

The biggest obstacle to producing nuclear weapons is obtaining enough fissile material – weapons-grade highly enriched uranium or plutonium – for the bomb’s core.

Iran says it has never sought nuclear weapons.

“Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization can enrich uranium by 20% and 60% and if one day our reactors need it, it can enrich uranium to 90% purity,” Rouhani told a cabinet meeting, Iranian state media reported.

The nuclear deal caps the fissile purity to which Tehran can refine uranium at 3.67%, well under the 20% achieved before the pact and far below the 90% suitable for a nuclear weapon.

Iran has been breaching the deal in several ways after the United States withdrew from the agreement in 2018, including by producing 20% and 60% enriched uranium.

Rouhani, who will hand over the presidency to hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi on Aug. 5, implicitly criticized Iran’s top decision makers for “not allowing” his government to reinstate the nuclear deal during its term in office.

“They took away the opportunity to reach an agreement from this government. We deeply regret missing this opportunity,” the state news agency IRNA quoted Rouhani as saying.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, not the president, has the last say on all state matters such as nuclear policy.

Like Khamenei, Raisi has backed indirect talks between Tehran and Washington aimed at bringing back the arch foes into full compliance with the accord. Former U.S. President Donald Trump quit the deal three years ago, saying it was biased in favour of Iran, and reimposed crippling sanctions on Tehran.

The sixth round of nuclear talks in Vienna adjourned on June 20. The next round of the talks has yet to be scheduled, and Iranian and Western officials have said that significant gaps still remain to be resolved.

Two senior Iranian officials told Reuters that president-elect Raisi planned to adopt “a harder line” in the talks after taking office, adding that the next round might resume in late September or early October.

One of the officials said many members of Iran’s nuclear team might be replaced with hardline officials, but top nuclear negotiator Abbas Araqchi would stay “at least for a while”.

The second official said Raisi planned to show “less flexibility and demand more concessions” from Washington such as keeping a chain of advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges in place and insisting on the removal of human rights and terrorism related U.S. sanctions.

Trump blacklisted dozens of institutions vital to Iran’s economy using laws designed to punish foreign actors for supporting terrorism or weapons proliferation.

Removing oil and financial sanctions is essential if Iran is to export its oil, the top prize for Tehran for complying with the nuclear agreement and reining in its atomic program.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; editing by Jason Neely, William Maclean)

Iran begins process of making enriched uranium metal; U.S., E3 dismayed

By Francois Murphy, Humeyra Pamuk and Arshad Mohammed

VIENNA/WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Iran has begun the process of producing enriched uranium metal, the U.N. atomic watchdog said on Tuesday, a move that could help it develop a nuclear weapon and that three European powers said threatened talks to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

Iran’s steps, which were disclosed by the International Atomic Energy Agency and which Tehran said were aimed at developing fuel for a research reactor, also drew criticism from the United States, which called them an “unfortunate step backwards.”

U.S. and European officials made clear that Iran’s decision would complicate, and potentially torpedo, indirect U.S.-Iranian talks seeking to bring both nations back into compliance with the 2015 deal, which was abandoned by former U.S. President Donald Trump.

The deal imposed curbs on Iran’s nuclear program to make it harder for Tehran to develop fissile material for nuclear weapons in return for the lifting of economic sanctions. After Trump withdrew, Iran began violating many of its restrictions.

Tehran has already produced a small amount of uranium metal this year that was not enriched. That is a breach of the deal, which bans all work on uranium metal since it can be used to make the core of a nuclear bomb.

“Today, Iran informed the Agency that UO2 (uranium oxide) enriched up to 20% U–235 would be shipped to the R&D laboratory at the Fuel Fabrication Plant in Esfahan, where it would be converted to UF4 (uranium tetrafluoride) and then to uranium metal enriched to 20% U–235, before using it to manufacture the fuel,” an IAEA statement said.

A confidential IAEA report seen by Reuters said the agency had confirmed that Iran had taken the second of the four steps described, making clear it has begun the process.

Britain, France and Germany said on Tuesday they had “grave concern” about Iran’s decision, which violates the nuclear deal formally named the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

“Iran has no credible civilian need for uranium metal R&D and production, which are a key step in the development of a nuclear weapon,” they said in a joint statement issued by Britain’s foreign ministry.

“With its latest steps, Iran is threatening a successful outcome to the Vienna talks despite the progress achieved in six rounds of negotiations,” they said, and urged Iran to return to the talks, which began in April and adjourned on June 20. No date has been set for a next round.

U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said that Washington was not setting a deadline for the talks but noted “that as time proceeds Iran’s nuclear advances will have a bearing on our view of returning to the JCPOA.”

Price said the United States found it “worrying” that Iran was continuing to violate the agreement “especially with experiments that have value for nuclear weapons research.

“It’s another unfortunate step backwards for Iran,” he said.

(Reporting by Francois Murphy in Vienna and by Humeyra Pamuk and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu, Jonathan Landay and Simon Lewis in Washington and by David Milliken in London; Writing by Francois Murphy and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by David Goodman and Sonya Hepinstall)

Iran names hardline cleric as top judge amid calls for probe into past abuses

DUBAI (Reuters) -Iran’s supreme leader promoted a hardline cleric to serve as head of the judiciary on Friday, amid international calls for investigations into allegations of abuses.

Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei, now the judiciary’s deputy head, will replace Ebrahim Raisi, who takes office in August as president after winning a June 18 election.

Ejei was put on U.S. and EU sanctions blacklists a decade ago for his role in a crackdown on a popular uprising when he served as intelligence minister during a disputed election.

The choice of someone with such a high profile as a hardliner could draw further attention to allegations of past abuses by Iran at a time when the new U.S. administration is trying to negotiate a thaw with Tehran.

This week, a U.N. expert called for a new investigation into Raisi’s alleged role in the deaths of thousands of political prisoners when he served as a judge in the 1980s. Raisi denies wrongdoing.

Rights groups have criticized the election of Raisi in a vote in which prominent rivals were barred from standing.

In a statement, Khamenei urged Ejei to “promote justice, restore public rights, ensure legitimate freedoms, and oversee the proper implementation of laws, prevent crime, and resolutely fight corruption,” state news agency IRNA reported.

The U.N. investigator on human rights in Iran, Javaid Rehman, told Reuters this week there should be an independent inquiry into allegations of state-ordered executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988, and the role played by Raisi as Tehran deputy prosecutor at the time.

“As I have described in my reports, there is a widespread and systemic impunity in the country for gross violations of human rights, both historically in the past as well as in the present,” he said. “There are very few if any real avenues for accountability in line with international standards within domestic channels.”

Iran has repeatedly dismissed the criticism of its human rights record as baseless and a result of a lack of understanding of its Islamic laws. It says its legal system is independent and not influenced by political interests.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said last month that Raisi’s election was a blow for human rights and called for him to be investigated over his role in the 1988 executions.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Robin Emmot in Brussels and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Editing by William Maclean and Howard Goller)