Chemical weapons team to begin assigning blame for Syrian attacks

FILE PHOTO: The headquarters of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is pictured in The Hague, Netherlands, October 4, 2018. REUTERS/Piroschka van de Wouw/File Photo

THE HAGUE (Reuters) – The global chemical weapons watchdog will in February begin to assign blame for attacks with banned munitions in Syria’s war, using new powers approved by member states but opposed by Damascus and its key allies Russia and Iran.

The agency was handed the new task in response to an upsurge in the use of chemical weapons in recent years, notably in the Syrian conflict, where scores of attacks with sarin and chlorine have been carried out by Syrian forces and rebel groups, according to a joint United Nations-OPCW investigation.

A core team of 10 experts charged with apportioning blame for poison gas attacks in Syria will be hired soon, Fernando Arias, the new head of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), told the Foreign Press Association of the Netherlands on Tuesday.

The Syria team will be able to look into all attacks previously investigated by the OPCW, dating back to 2014.

The OPCW was granted additional powers to identify individuals and institutions responsible for attacks by its 193 member states at a special session in June. The decision was supported by the United States and European Union but opposed by Russia, Iran, Syria, and their allies, highlighting deep political division at the agency.

“The mandate is to identify the perpetrators of crimes committed with chemical weapons, but the OPCW is not a court or the police”, and will refer cases to U.N. organizations with powers to punish those responsible, Arias said.

The expert team will “be in charge of identifying the perpetrators for Syria in the first stage”, Arias said, and might later be expanded to look at attacks globally.

The June decision followed attacks with other chemical weapons. In Salisbury, England, a former Russian spy and his daughter were poisoned in March with the military-grade nerve agent novichok, and the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was assassinated in Malaysia with VX in February 2017.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Facing new sanctions, Iranians vent anger at rich and powerful

FILE PHOTO: Iranian rials, U.S. dollars and Iraqi dinars are seen at a currency exchange shopÊin Basra, Iraq November 3, 2018. Picture taken November 3, 2018. REUTERS/Essam al-Sudani

By Babak Dehghanpisheh

GENEVA (Reuters) – More Iranians are using social media to vent anger at what they see as the corruption and extravagance of a privileged few, while the majority struggles to get by in an economy facing tighter U.S. sanctions.

The country has been hit by a wave of protests during the last year, some of them violent, but as economic pressures rise, people are increasingly pointing fingers at the rich and powerful, including clerics, diplomats, officials and their families.

One person channeling that resentment is Seyed Mahdi Sadrossadati, a relatively obscure cleric who has amassed 256,000 followers on his Instagram account with a series of scathing posts aimed at children of the elite.

In one recent post, he blasted the “luxury life” of a Revolutionary Guards commander and his son, who posted a selfie online in front of a tiger lying on the balcony of a mansion.

Openly criticizing a well-known member of the powerful military unit that answers to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is in itself an unusual act of defiance.

“A house tiger? What’s going on?” Sadrossadati wrote. “And this from a 25-year-old youth who could not gain such wealth. People are having serious difficulty getting diapers for their child.”

The Iranian rial currency has hit 149,000 to the U.S. dollar on the black market used for most transactions, down from around 43,000 at the start of 2018, as U.S. President Donald Trump vowed to pull out of the nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers aimed at curbing its nuclear program.

That has sent living costs sharply higher and made imports less accessible, while the threat of financial punishment from the United States has prompted many foreign companies to pull out of Iran or stay away.

The situation could get worse, as additional sanctions come into force this week.

“SULTAN OF COINS”

Wary of growing frustration over the relative wealth of a few among the population of 81 million, Khamenei has approved the establishment of special courts focused on financial crimes.

The courts have handed out at least seven death sentences since they were set up in August, and some of the trials have been broadcast live on television.

Among those sentenced to death was Vahid Mazloumin, dubbed the “sultan of coins” by local media, a trader accused of manipulating the currency market and who was allegedly caught with two tons of gold coins, according to the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA).

The tough sentences have not been enough to quell frustration, however, with high profile officials and clerics in the firing line.

“Because the economic situation is deteriorating, people are looking for someone to blame and in this way get revenge from the leaders and officials of the country,” said Saeed Leylaz, a Tehran-based economist and political analyst.

Washington is likely to welcome signs of pressure on Iran’s political and religious establishment, as it hopes that by squeezing the economy it can force Tehran to curb its nuclear program and row back on military and political expansion in the Middle East.

Public anger among Iranians has been building for some time.

Demonstrations over economic hardships began late last year, spreading to more than 80 cities and towns and resulting in at least 25 deaths.

CLERICS

In addition to his written contributions, Sadrossadati has posted videos of debates between himself and some of those he has criticized.

In one, he confronted Mehdi Mazaheri, the son of a former central bank governor who was criticized online after a photograph appeared showing him wearing a large gold watch.

In a heated exchange, Sadrossadati shouted: “How did you get rich? How much money did you start out with and how much money do you have now? How many loans have you taken?”

Mazaheri, barely able to get in a reply, said he would be willing to share documents about his finances.

Children of more than a dozen other officials have been criticized online and are often referred to as “aghazadeh” – literally “noble-born” in Farsi but also a derogatory term used to describe their perceived extravagance.

High-profile clerics have also been targeted.

Mohammad Naghi Lotfi, who held the prestigious position of leading Friday prayers at a mosque in Ilam, west Iran, resigned in October after he was criticized on social media for being photographed stepping out of a luxury sports utility vehicle.

Facebook posts labeled Lotfi a hypocrite for highlighting ways that ordinary Iranians could get through the economic crisis during his speeches. The outcry was a major factor in his decision to resign from a post he had held for 18 years.

“The hype that was presented against me in this position … made me resign, lest in the creation of this hype the position of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution be damaged,” Lotfi told state media after stepping down.

“The issue of the vehicle … was all lies that they created in cyberspace,” he added.

He was one of at least four clerics in charge of Friday prayers who have resigned in the last year after being accused on social media of profligacy or financial impropriety.

(Editing by Mike Collett-White)

Iranian oil: 40 years of revolution, war, sanctions and bans

FILE PHOTO: A gas flare on an oil production platform in the Soroush oil fields is seen alongside an Iranian flag in the Persian Gulf, Iran, July 25, 2005. To match Exclusive OPEC-OIL/ REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi/File Photo/File Photo

By Amanda Cooper

LONDON (Reuters) – Nearly 40 years after the 1979 Islamic revolution saw the exit of Western oil companies from Iran, the Iranian oil sector faces yet another costly disruption after a series of interruptions from war, sanctions and diplomatic isolation.

Washington will reapply sanctions to Iran’s oil sector on Nov. 4, after ending its participation in an international deal governing Iran’s nuclear sector. Iran’s oil buyers outside the United States will stop or reduce purchases because of secondary sanctions applied on foreign companies that use the U.S. banking system.

Having lifted a self-imposed revolutionary ban on foreign investors in 1995, Iran has struggled to attract external investment for any sustained period.

The isolation caused by poor relations with the United States and, in recent years, Tehran’s efforts to develop a nuclear capability have prevented Iran building output capacity.

But huge reserves run by the National Iranian Oil Co have helped it cling to its position as one of the world’s five largest oil producers.

The United States stopped buying Iranian oil or investing in Iran’s oil industry in 1979 and has not resumed since.

Iran produces nearly 4 percent of the world’s daily oil supply and over the last 30 years has exported on average two-thirds of that.

The mid-1970s were the heyday of the Iranian oil sector when its output accounted for 10 percent of global production.

It has never returned to the record 6 million barrels per day (bpd) it pumped in 1974.

In that year it pumped 70 percent of the amount produced by OPEC’s biggest producer, its regional political rival Saudi Arabia, and more than three times as much as its neighbor Iraq.

In 2012, when a first round of international nuclear sanctions was imposed, Iran’s output was only a third of Saudi Arabia’s, rising to 41 percent last year and just a little higher than Iraq’s.

Output dropped to a low of 1.5 million bpd in 1980, the year after Shah Mohammed Reza was overthrown, an event that caused the second oil shock across the economies of the West.

It took 23 years for Iran to restore 4 million bpd in 2003, with a post-revolutionary peak last year just short of 5 million bpd of crude and condensate combined

Iran’s exports halved during the depths of the 2012-2016 international sanctions on its nuclear program.

It is unclear what proportion of Iranian crude sales will vanish from international markets after Nov. 4. The United States said on Friday it would temporarily spare from sanctions eight jurisdictions that import Iranian oil. The European Union would not be one of the eight, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said.

This isn’t Iran’s first round of sanctions. It has devised ways to export oil under the radar, evading detection by switching off the transponders of its fleet of nearly 40 supertankers, using alternatives to the U.S. dollar for payment, or selling crude to private refiners, in small, harder-to-track parcels

(Reporting by Amanda Cooper; Editing by Richard Mably and Dale Hudson)

Netanyahu condemns Khashoggi killing but keeps focus on Iran

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem October 28, 2018. Oded Balilty/Pool via REUTERS

SOFIA (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday condemned the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul but said the bigger problem facing the region was Iran.

Netanyahu made the comments during a news conference in the Bulgarian city of Varna, where he met the Bulgarian, Greek, Romanian and Serbian leaders.

His remarks followed similar comments made earlier in the day by a senior Israeli minister.

(Reporting by Tsvetalia Tsolova; Editing by Alison Williams)

Saudi-led coalition masses troops near Yemen’s Hodeidah as pressure mounts to end war

FILE PHOTO: Protesters hold up a poster of Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi during a protest against the deteriorating economy in Taiz, Yemen, October 4, 2018. REUTERS/Anees Mahyoub/File Photo

By Mohammed Ghobari

ADEN (Reuters) – The Saudi-led coalition has massed thousands of troops near Yemen’s main port city of Hodeidah, local military sources said on Wednesday, in a move to pressure Iranian-aligned Houthi insurgents to return to U.N.-sponsored peace talks.

The United States and Britain have called for an end to the 3-1/2-year war that has driven impoverished Yemen to the verge of famine, raising pressure on Saudi Arabia as it faces a global outcry over the murder of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.

The military alliance of Sunni Muslim states led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates has deployed around 30,000 forces south of Houthi-held Hodeidah and near its eastern entrance, pro-coalition Yemeni military sources told Reuters.

“Thousands of Yemeni soldiers trained by the coalition have been sent to the outskirts of Hodeidah in addition to modern weaponry including armored vehicles and tanks…in preparation for a big operation in coming days,” said one source.

Residents told Reuters that the Houthis had also deployed forces in the center of Hodeidah city, at the port and in southern neighborhoods in anticipation of an onslaught.

The coalition and the Houthis have not commented on the military movements.

The U.N. special envoy to Yemen is trying to salvage peace talks that collapsed in September, raising the risk of a renewed assault on the Red Sea city, the country’s main port and a lifeline for millions of Yemenis reliant on humanitarian aid.

Envoy Martin Griffiths welcomed a call by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday for a cessation of hostilities ahead of U.N.-led negotiations scheduled to begin next month.

Britain also endorsed the U.S. call to end the fighting, which has killed more than 10,000 people, according to available U.N. figures, and triggered the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis.

“We remain committed to bring the Yemeni parties to the negotiations table within a month. Dialogue remains the only path to reach an inclusive agreement,” Griffiths said in a statement issued on Wednesday.

“I urge all concerned parties to seize this opportunity to engage constructively with our current efforts to swiftly resume political consultations to agree on a framework for political negotiations, and confidence-building measures,” he said, listing support for the central bank and a prisoner swap.

DIRE SITUATION

The Western-backed Arab alliance intervened in Yemen’s war, widely seen as a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, in 2015 to restore the internationally recognized government.

But after seizing the southern port city of Aden and some towns on the western coast, the alliance has made little gains in a costly war to unseat the Houthis, who hold the most populous parts of Yemen including the capital Sanaa.

The United Nations aid chief told the Security Council earlier this month that half the population of Yemen – some 14 million people – could soon be on the brink of famine.

Aid groups warned of deteriorating conditions in the Arabian Peninsula country.

“The recent increase in military activity in…Hodeidah threatens the security of our life-saving operations,” World Food Programme spokesman Herve Verhoosel said on Wednesday.

He said the WFP has enough cereals to assist 6.4 million of the neediest Yemenis for 2-1/2 months, with the aim to reach 8 million.

Red Cross spokeswoman Sara Alzawqari said that an estimated 3,200 families – some 22,000-28,000 people – were in dire need of basic necessities including food, water and shelter in Hodeidah, many having fled fighting in rural areas.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia have repeatedly said that taking control of Hodeidah would force the Houthi movement to the negotiating table by cutting off its main supply line.

But a previous offensive on the heavily-defended city in June failed to accomplish any gains and the coalition halted the fighting to give U.N. peace talks in Geneva a chance.

The talks were abandoned when the Houthi delegation failed to show up. The Houthis accused the coalition of blocking the group’s team from traveling, while the Yemeni government accused the Houthis of trying to sabotage the negotiations.

(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Iranian intelligence service suspected of attempted attack in Denmark: security chief

FILE PHOTO: Danish Foreign Minister Anders Samuelsen attends a news conference in Beijing, China June 21, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Lee/File Photo

COPENHAGEN (Reuters) – Denmark said on Tuesday it suspected an Iranian intelligence service had tried to carry out a plot to assassinate an Iranian Arab opposition figure on its soil.

A Norwegian citizen of Iranian background was arrested in Sweden on Oct. 21 in connection with the plot and extradited to Denmark, Swedish security police said.

The Norwegian has denied the charges and Tehran also rejected the allegations on Tuesday.

The attack was meant to target the leader of the Danish branch of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz (ASMLA), Danish intelligence chief Finn Borch Andersen said.

ASMLA seeks a separate state for ethnic Arabs in Iran’s oil-producing southwestern province of Khuzestan.

“We are dealing with an Iranian intelligence agency planning an attack on Danish soil. Obviously, we can’t and won’t accept that,” Andersen told a news conference.

Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi dismissed the accusations. “This is a continuation of enemies’ plots to damage Iranian relations with Europe at this critical time,” Tasnim news agency quoted him as saying.

European countries are trying to save a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers after President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the pact and announced the reimposition of sanctions on Tehran.

Andersen said the arrested Norwegian citizen had denied charges in court of helping a foreign intelligence service plot an assassination in Denmark.

Arabs are a minority in Iran, and some see themselves as under Persian occupation and want independence or autonomy.

Danish Foreign Minister Anders Samuelsen said on Twitter that the reported attack plot was “completely unacceptable”.

“The government will respond to Iran and is speaking with European partners on further measures,” Samuelsen said.

On Sept. 28, Danish police shut two major bridges to traffic and halted ferry services from Denmark to Sweden and Germany in a nationwide police operation to prevent a possible attack.

A few days earlier, the Norwegian suspect had been observed photographing and watching the Danish home of the ASMLA leader, police said.

In November 2017, Ahmad Mola Nissi, an Iranian exile who established ASMLA, was shot dead in the Netherlands. The Danish security service then bolstered police protection of the ASMLA leader in Denmark and two associates.

Last month, Iran summoned the envoys of the Netherlands, Denmark, and Britain over a Sept. 22 shooting attack on a military parade in Khuzestan in which 25 people were killed.

Iran accused the three countries of harboring Iranian opposition groups.

Another Arab opposition group, the Ahwaz National Resistance, and the Islamic State militant group both claimed responsibility for the parade attack, though neither has provided conclusive evidence to back up their claim.

Last week, diplomatic and security sources said France had expelled an Iranian diplomat over a failed plot to carry out a bomb attack on a rally in the Paris area by an exiled Iranian opposition group.

(Reporting by Emil Gjerding Nielson with additional reporting by Stine Jacobsen and Terje Solsvik in Copenhagen, Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London, John Irish in Paris; Editing by Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen and Mark Heinrich)

Under the radar: Iran’s oil exports harder to track as sanctions loom

FILE PHOTO: gas flare on an oil production platform in the Soroush oil fields is seen alongside an Iranian flag in the Gulf July 25, 2005. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi/File Photo

By Alex Lawler and Ahmad Ghaddar

LONDON (Reuters) – According to Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih, no one has any idea how much oil Iran will be able to export after new U.S. sanctions against the Islamic Republic kick in on Nov. 4.

But more precisely, Iran’s shipment figures – crucial to oil markets – are already a mystery.

Iran’s oil exports are becoming harder to measure as ships switch off tracking systems, oil industry sources say, adding uncertainty over how far U.S. sanctions are scaring off buyers. The prospect of more oil heading into storage could make number-crunching even tougher.

Amid pressure from U.S. President Donald Trump to cool the price of oil, the lack of export clarity adds to the challenge for other OPEC members, chiefly top crude supplier Saudi Arabia, to make up for falling Iranian shipments.

Iran is the third-largest producer in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and estimates of its crude exports in October vary by more than 1 million barrels per day (bpd). That amount is enough to cover the oil demand of Turkey and move prices in the 100-million-bpd world market.

Before Trump’s May announcement of the sanctions, Iranian exports were above 2.5 million bpd.

Falih acknowledged the challenge in an interview with Russia’s TASS news agency published on Oct. 22. “Nobody has a clue what Iranian exports will be,” he said.

An Iranian oil official, asked how much crude Iran was exporting in October, declined to comment.

Oil prices have extended a rally on expectations the sanctions will test OPEC and other producers. Brent crude on Oct. 3 reached $86.74 a barrel, the highest since 2014, although it has since eased to $77.

While the Saudi minister may have been referring to what happens after sanctions kick in, the range of estimates of how much Iran is exporting now is already widening.

“A large set of numbers estimating Iranian October first-half exports have been thrown to the market these last few days, ranging for 1 million bpd to 2.2 million bpd, which is a massive spread,” Kpler, a data intelligence company, said.

According to Refinitiv Eikon data, Iran exported 1.55 million bpd in the first three weeks of October, higher than the 1.33 million bpd seen in the first two weeks of the month.

Kpler put Iranian exports at 1.85 million bpd in the first 24 days of October.

An industry source who also tracks the exports estimated a similar volume of 1.8 million bpd in the first half of October, including vessels not showing on satellite tracking. A second source initially agreed and later trimmed his figure to 1.65 million bpd through Oct. 22.

“It’s pretty high, I have to admit,” this source said of estimated exports in the first two weeks of the month. “It’s possible that there is a drop-off since.”

SIGNAL SWITCHED OFF

At any time, adjustments to tanker schedules and week-by-week variation complicate the task. While easier than in the past due to satellite information, the tracking of tankers is still both art and science.

Another element may be making this harder, industry sources say.

Tankers loading Iranian crude sometimes switch off their AIS signal, an automatic tracking system used on ships, only to switch it back on at a later stage of their journey, according to oil industry sources.

This could create a problem for ship-tracking services trying to pinpoint the exact date, or even the exact hour, on which a tanker loaded its crude cargo.

Neither Iran’s National Iranian Oil Co nor National Iranian Tanker Co responded to an emailed request for comment.

“Concretely, we are able to confirm loadings of vessels having shut down AIS transponders by other means such as satellite imagery or by tracking Iranian-flagged tugs, which has proven especially valuable given the lack of AIS coverage throughout much of the Gulf,” Kpler said.

Iran was believed by oil trading and shipping sources in 2012 to be hiding the destination of its oil sales by strategically switching off vessels’ tracking systems.

Attempts by Reuters to seek official Iranian comment on that development, both in 2012 and for this article, received no response.

Iran insists it will keep exporting oil and says the U.S. sanctions will ensure the market remains volatile.

“Iranian oil exports cannot be stopped,” Tasnim news agency quoted Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh as saying on Oct. 23.

Iranian Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri said on Sunday: “Despite sanctions, Iran’s oil exports will not fall below a million barrels a day.”

OIL INTO ASIAN STORAGE?

As the number of buyers dwindles, a large volume of Iranian crude is set to arrive at China’s northeast Dalian port this month and in early November.

China intends to cut purchases in November. But Iran is undeterred, planning to send buyers such as India and China oil for storage rather than consumption, making it harder to measure how much oil is reaching the market, sources say.

Analysts, in assessing a producer’s supply of oil to the market, generally do not take into account crude moved into storage.

“We will give them oil even for our inventory there,” a source familiar with Iranian thinking said, referring to India. “The same we will do for China.”

The data seen to date suggests Iranian crude exports in October are still down from at least 2.5 million bpd in April, before Trump in May withdrew the United States from a nuclear deal with Iran and reimposed sanctions.

Exports dropped below 1.2 million bpd under previous sanctions that were lifted following that 2015 nuclear agreement.

While Washington has said it wants to cut Iran’s oil exports to zero, Iran and Saudi Arabia say that is unlikely. The Trump administration is considering waivers on sanctions for countries that are reducing their imports.

Iran says waivers will be granted allowing shipments to continue at a lower level, as it contends that Saudi Arabia and other producers cannot fully replace Iran’s crude exports.

“Waivers are expected, as Saudi Arabia and Russia cannot do it,” the source familiar with Iranian thinking said.

(Additional reporting by Rania El Gamal; editing by Dmitry Zhdannikov and Dale Hudson)

Facebook removes fake accounts tied to Iran that lured over 1 million followers

FILE PHOTO: A woman looks at the Facebook logo on an iPad in this photo illustration taken June 3, 2018. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau/Illustration/File Photo

By Christopher Bing and Munsif Vengattil

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Facebook Inc said on Friday it had deleted accounts originating in Iran that attracted more than 1 million U.S. and British followers, its latest effort to combat disinformation activity on its platform.

Social media companies are struggling to stop attempts by people inside and outside the United States to spread false information on their platforms with goals ranging from destabilizing elections by stoking hardline positions to supporting propaganda campaigns.

The fake Facebook accounts originating in Iran mostly targeted American liberals, according to the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, a think tank that works with Facebook to study propaganda online.

Facebook said it removed 82 pages, groups and accounts on Facebook and Instagram that represented themselves as being American or British citizens, then posted on “politically charged” topics such as race relations, opposition to U.S. President Donald Trump and immigration, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, said in a blog post.

In total, the removed accounts attracted more than 1 million followers. The Iran-linked posts were amplified through less than $100 in advertising on Facebook and Instagram, Facebook said.

While the accounts originated in Iran, it was unclear if they were linked to the Tehran government, according to Facebook, which shared the information with researchers, other technology companies and the British and U.S. governments.

The Iranian U.N. mission did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The action follows takedowns in August by Facebook, Twitter Inc and Alphabet Inc of hundreds of accounts linked to Iranian propaganda.

The latest operation was more sophisticated in some instances, making it difficult to identify, Gleicher said during a press conference phone call on Friday.

Although most of accounts and pages had existed only since earlier this year, they attracted more followers than the accounts removed in August, some of which dated back to 2013. The previously suspended Iranian accounts and pages garnered roughly 983,000 followers before being removed.

“It looks like the intention was to embed in highly active and engaged communities by posting inflammatory content, and then insert messaging on Saudi and Israel which amplified the Iranian government’s narrative,” said Ben Nimmo, an information defense fellow with the Digital Forensic Research Lab.

“Most of the posts concerned divisive issues in the U.S., and posted a liberal or progressive viewpoint, especially on race relations and police violence,” Nimmo said.

Social media companies have increasingly targeted foreign interference on their platforms following criticism that they did not do enough to detect, halt and disclose Russian efforts to use their platforms to influence the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential race.

Iran and Russia have denied allegations that they have used social media platforms to launch disinformation campaigns.

(Reporting by Chris Bing in Washington and Munsif Vengattil in Bengalaru, additional reporting by Jack Stubbs in London and Michelle Nichols in New York; Editing by Steve Orlofsky, Bernadette Baum and Susan Thomas)

France points finger at Iran over bomb plot, seizes assets

FILE PHOTO: Supporters of Maryam Rajavi, president-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), attend a rally in Villepinte, near Paris, France, June 30, 2018. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau/File Photo

By John Irish and Richard Lough

PARIS (Reuters) – France said on Tuesday there was no doubt Iran’s intelligence ministry was behind a June plot to attack an exiled opposition group’s rally outside Paris and it seized assets belonging to Tehran’s intelligence services and two Iranian nationals.

The hardening of relations between Paris and Tehran could have far-reaching consequences for Iran as President Hassan Rouhani’s government looks to European capitals to salvage a 2015 nuclear deal after the United States pulled out and reimposed tough sanctions on Iran.

“Behind all this was a long, meticulous and detailed investigation by our (intelligence) services that enabled us to reach the conclusion, without any doubt, that responsibility fell on the Iranian intelligence ministry,” a French diplomatic source said.

The source, speaking after the government announced asset freezes, added that deputy minister and director general of intelligence Saeid Hashemi Moghadam had ordered the attack and Assadollah Asadi, a Vienna-based diplomat held by German authorities, had put it into action.

The ministry is under control of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,

“We deny once again the allegations against Iran and demand the immediate release of the Iranian diplomat,” Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi was quoted as saying by state news agency IRNA.

The incident was a plot “designed by those who want to damage Iran’s long-established relations with France and Europe,” he said.

The plot targeted a meeting of the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) outside the French capital. U.S. President Donald Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and several former European and Arab ministers attended the rally.

It unraveled after Asadi, an accredited diplomat in Austria, was arrested in Germany, two other individuals were detained in Belgium in possession of explosives, and one other individual in France.

On Monday, a court in southern Germany ruled the diplomat could be extradited to Belgium.

“We cannot accept any terrorist threat on our national territory and this plot needed a firm response,” the diplomatic source said.

TARGETED ASSET FREEZES

The asset freezes targeted Asadi and Moghadam. A unit within the Iranian intelligence services was also targeted.

The French government gave no details of the assets involved, describing its measures as “targeted and proportionate”.

The diplomatic source said the freezes covered assets and financing means in France, although neither individual at this stage had any assets in the country.

“We hope this matter is now over. We have taken measures and said what we needed to say,” the source said, suggesting Paris was seeking to turn a page on the issue.

France had warned Tehran to expect a robust response to the thwarted bombing and diplomatic relations were becoming increasingly strained.

French President Emmanuel Macron and Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian spoke to their Iranian counterparts about the issue at the U.N. General Assembly after demanding explanations over Iran’s role.

An internal French foreign ministry memo in August told diplomats not to travel to Iran, Reuters revealed, citing the Villepinte bomb plot and a toughening of Iran’s position toward the West.

Paris has also suspended nominating a new ambassador to Iran and not responded to Tehran nominations for diplomatic positions in France.

While not directly linked to the plot, the diplomatic source said a French police raid on a Shi’ite Muslim faith center earlier on Tuesday was aimed at also sending a signal at Iran. [ID:nL8N1WI2Y7

The deterioration of relations with France could have wider implications for Iran.

France has been one of the strongest advocates of salvaging the 2015 nuclear deal, which saw Tehran agree to curbs on its nuclear program in return for a lifting of economic sanctions.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has said it expects renewed sanctions to hurt the Iranian economy hard.

(Additional reporting by Paris bureau, Maria Sheahan in Frankfurt; Editing by Jon Boyle, William Maclean, Richard Balmforth)

Netanyahu, in U.N. speech, claims secret Iranian nuclear site

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 27, 2018. REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs

By John Irish and Arshad Mohammed

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described on Thursday what he said was a secret atomic warehouse in Tehran and accused Europe of appeasing Iran as he sought to rally support for U.S. sanctions against the Islamic Republic.

Addressing the United Nations General Assembly, Netanyahu showed an aerial photograph of the Iranian capital marked with a red arrow and pointed to what he said was a previously secret warehouse holding nuclear-related material. He argued this showed Iran still sought to obtain nuclear weapons, despite its 2015 agreement with world powers to curb its program in exchange for loosening of sanctions.

Netanyahu spoke four-and-a-half months after U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the accord, arguing it did too little to rein in Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and triggering the resumption of U.S. economic sanctions on Iran.

Netanyahu said the site contained some 15 kilograms (33 pounds) of radioactive material that has since been moved called on the U.N. atomic agency to inspect the location immediately with Geiger counters.

“I am disclosing for the first time that Iran has another secret facility in Tehran, a secret atomic warehouse for storing massive amounts of equipment and materiel from Iran’s secret nuclear program,” Netanyahu said.

Iran did not immediately respond to Netanyahu’s allegations.

He did not identify the material or specifically suggest that Iran had actively violated the nuclear deal.

An outspoken opponent of the deal, Netanyahu has previously made allegations about Iran’s nuclear activities that are difficult or impossible to verify, including presenting a cartoon bomb to the General Assembly in 2012 warning of how close Tehran was to producing a nuclear device.

In April, Netanyahu presented what he said was evidence of a large secret archive of documents related to Iran’s clandestine nuclear weapons program at a different site in Tehran.

He said Israeli agents removed vast amounts of documents from that site. At the time, Iran said the documents were fake.

In a speech in which he said relatively little about efforts to achieve peace with the Palestinians, Netanyahu said Iran had since begun moving items out of the second site.

“Since we raided the atomic archive, they’ve been busy cleaning out the atomic warehouse. Just last month they removed 15 kilograms of radioactive material. You know what they did with it?” he said. “They took it out and they spread it around Tehran in an effort to hide the evidence.”

He said Iranian officials still had a lot of work to do because there were some 15 shipping containers full of nuclear-related equipment and materials stored at the second site.

“This site contained as much as 300 tonnes – 300 tonnes – of nuclear-related equipment and materiel,” he said.

Under the nuclear deal struck by Iran and six major powers – Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States – Tehran agreed to limit its nuclear program in return for relief from U.S. and other economic sanctions.

The International Atomic Agency (IAEA) has repeatedly said Tehran was abiding by its commitments to the deal, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), including in a document reviewed by Reuters on Aug. 30.

France, Britain, Germany, China, and Russia have stayed in the pact, vowing to save it despite the restoration of U.S. sanctions and this week discussing a barter mechanism they hope may allow Iran to circumvent the U.S. measures.

Netanyahu criticized Europe for doing so in unusually harsh language that evoked European nations’ initial failure to confront Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

“While the United States is confronting Iran with new sanctions, Europe and others are appeasing Iran by trying to help it bypass those new sanctions,” Netanyahu said.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States is aware of the facility Netanyahu announced and described it as a “warehouse” used to store “records and archives” from Iran’s nuclear program.

A second U.S. intelligence official called Netanyahu’s comments “somewhat misleading. First, we have known about this facility for some time, and it’s full of file cabinets and paper, not aluminum tubes for centrifuges, and second, so far as anyone knows, there is nothing in it that would allow Iran to break out of the JCPOA any faster than it otherwise could.”

The Israeli leader also lambasted Iran’s ballistic missile activity, identifying three locations near Beirut airport where he said Lebanon’s Hezbollah was converting missiles.

“In Lebanon, Iran is directing Hezbollah to build secret sites to convert inaccurate projectiles into precision-guided missiles, missiles that can target deep inside Israel within an accuracy of 10 meters (yards),” he said.

The IAEA, Iran and Hezbollah were not immediately available for comment.

The Israeli military released a video clip and photos of what it said were Hezbollah Shi’ite militia rocket building sites in Lebanon, shortly after Netanyahu’s address.

(Reporting by John Irish, Arshad Mohammed, Yara Bayoumy and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, Jonathan Landay and John Walcott in Washington, Laila Bassam in Beirut, Francois Murphy in Vienna; Editing by James Dalgleish)