Iran will back Palestinian armed groups as much as it can: leader

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran will support Palestinian armed groups as much as it can, Iran’s Supreme Leader said on Wednesday, urging Palestinians to confront a U.S. plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

“We believe that Palestinian armed organizations will stand and continue resistance and the Islamic Republic sees supporting Palestinian groups as its duty,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a speech, the text of which appeared on his website.

“So it will support them however it can and as much as it can and this support is the desire of the Islamic system and the Iranian nation.”

U.S. President Donald Trump announced a U.S. plan last month which would set up a Palestinian state with strict conditions but allow Israel to take over long-contested Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Palestinian leaders have rejected it as biased toward Israel.

Trump’s plan is to the detriment of America and Palestinians should confront the deal by forcing Israelis and Americans out through jihad, Khamenei said, according to his official website.

Tensions have spiked between Iran and the United States after top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad on Jan. 3, prompting the Islamic Republic to retaliate with a missile attack against a U.S. base in Iraq days later.

Khamenei jabbed at Arab leaders who have supported the Trump plan.

“The welcoming and clapping from a few traitorous Arab leaders who are worthless and dishonorable among their own people has no importance,” Khamenei said, according to his official website.

Separately, Khamenei called for a high turnout in parliamentary elections on Feb. 21, broadly seen as a gauge of support for authorities after all-out war with the United States almost broke out last month.

“It’s possible that someone doesn’t like me but if they like Iran they must come to the ballot box,” Khamenei said, according to his official website, noting that the elections could help solve Iran’s international problems.

Last week, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani lashed out at hardliners over the mass disqualification of candidates for the election.

Iran’s economy has been battered after Trump pulled out of a multilateral nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic in 2018 and reimposed sanctions in a bid to bring Iran to the negotiating table for curbs on its ballistic missile program and to cut its support for regional proxies.

America’s attempt to pressure Iran to negotiate through sanctions will not work, Rouhani said in a speech broadcast live on state TV on Wednesday.

“They thought we would request negotiations from America. Negotiations by their definition, not our definition,” Rouhani said. “They want us to surrender through cruel, unequal and undignified negotiations. This is impossible for the Iranian people.”

(Reporting By Babak Dehghanpisheh; Editing by Alex Richardson, William Maclean)

Iran observes all U.S. ships in Gulf region: Iran navy chief

FILE PHOTO: Fleet replenishment oiler USNS Big Horn (T-AO 198) steams out to sea after a vertical replenishment with amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (LHD 4), Arabian Sea off Oman, July 19, 2019.Justin D. Rankin/U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

GENEVA (Reuters) – Iran observes all U.S. ships in the Gulf region and has an archive of images of their daily movements, the head of Iran’s navy, Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi, said on Tuesday, according to the Young Journalists Club news site.

Iran and the United States came to the brink of war last month after the Islamic Republic shot down a U.S. drone, nearly prompting a retaliatory attack which U.S. President Donald Trump called off at the last minute.

Tensions have also spiked between Iran and Britain after the Islamic Republic seized a British-flagged tanker last Friday because it had collided with a fishing vessel, according to Iranian officials.

British Royal Marines seized an Iranian tanker off the coast of Gibraltar in early July, accusing it of violating sanctions on Syria.

“We observe all enemy ships, particularly (those of) America, point-by-point from their origin until the moment they enter the region,” Khanzadi said, noting that images were recorded using Iranian drones.

“We have complete images and a large archive of the daily and moment-by-moment traffic of the coalition forces and America.”

Iran will hold joint naval exercises with allied countries for the first time by the end of the Iranian calendar year, which is in March 2020, Khanzadi said.

He did not specify which countries might take part in the exercise.

(Reporting By Babak Dehghanpisheh; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Iran to boost uranium enrichment level above nuclear pact’s limit

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is seen during meeting with health ministry top officials in Tehran, Iran, June 25, 2019. Official President website/Handout via REUTERS

By Babak Dehghanpisheh

GENEVA (Reuters) – Iran will boost its uranium enrichment after July 7 to whatever levels it needs beyond the cap set in the landmark 2015 nuclear deal, President Hassan Rouhani said on Wednesday, while calling on Washington to rejoin the pact.

Iran announced this week it has stockpiled more low-enriched uranium than is permitted under the accord, a move that prompted U.S. President Donald Trump – who withdrew the United States from the deal last year – to warn Iran was “playing with fire”.

European co-signatories said on Tuesday they were “extremely concerned” by Tehran’s apparent breach of the deal while Israel said it was preparing for possible involvement in any military confrontation between Iran and the United States.

Weeks of tensions crested last month when Tehran shot down a U.S. military surveillance drone and Trump responded with a decision to launch air strikes only to call them off at the last minute. Washington also accused Iran of being behind attacks on several oil tankers in the Gulf, which Tehran denies.

“Our level of enrichment will no longer be 3.67. We will put this commitment aside by whatever amount we feel like, by whatever amount is our necessity, our need. We will take this above 3.67,” said Rouhani, according to IRIB news agency.

Uranium refined to a fissile purity of 3.67% is deemed suitable for electricity generation and is the maximum allowed by the deal. Enrichment to 90% yields bomb-grade material.

Rouhani added that the Islamic Republic’s actions were reversible. “All of our actions can be returned to the previous condition within one hour, why are you worried?” he said.

His tone was unusually tough. Rouhani was the architect of the nuclear pact and is seen as a pragmatist, unlike senior clerics in Iran’s ruling elite who opposed his opening to the West and have kept up their denunciations of the United States.

Rouhani further urged the Trump administration to “adopt a rational approach again” and return to the negotiating table.

Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy aims to push Iran into negotiate a wider-ranging deal also reining in its ballistic missile program and its backing of proxies around the Middle East in a struggle with Saudi Arabia for regional dominance.

HEAVY-WATER REACTOR

Rouhani said that if the other signatories did not protect trade with Iran promised under the deal but blocked by Trump’s reimposition of tough sanctions, Tehran would also start to revive its Arak heavy-water reactor after July 7.

As required by the accord, Iran said in January 2016 that it had removed the core of the reactor and filled it with cement.

“From (July 7) onward with the Arak reactor, if you don’t operate (according to) the program and time frame of all the commitments you’ve given us, we will return the Arak reactor to its previous condition,” said Rouhani.

“Meaning, the condition that you say is dangerous and can produce plutonium,” he said, referring to a key potential component of a nuclear bomb. “We will return to that unless you take action regarding all your commitments regarding Arak.”

He kept the door open to negotiations, saying Iran would again reduce its stockpile of enriched uranium below the 300-kilogram limit set by the nuclear pact if signatories Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China honored their deal pledges.

Iran will gain nothing by departing from the terms of the deal, the French foreign ministry cautioned on Wednesday.

“Putting (the deal) into question will only increase the already heightened tensions in the region,” ministry spokesman Agnes von der Muhll told reporters in a daily briefing.

U.S. SANCTIONS NOOSE

Tensions between Washington and Tehran have escalated since Trump pulled Washington out of the pact in May 2018 and acted to bar all international sales of Iranian oil, the Islamic Republic’s economic lifeblood.

The European signatories to the accord have sought to pull the two longstanding adversaries back from the verge of military conflict, fearing a mistake could spiral into a wider Middle East war endangering global security and energy supplies.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif denies that Iran is in violation of the nuclear accord by exceeding the cap on low-enriched uranium, saying Iran is exercising its right to respond after the U.S. withdrawal.

The nuclear accord lifted most global sanctions against Iran in return for curbs on its uranium enrichment capacity.

It aimed to extend the time Tehran would need to produce a nuclear bomb, if it chose to, from roughly 2-3 months to a year.

Tehran has denied any intent to develop nuclear weapons.

Iran’s main demand – in talks with the European parties to the deal and as a precondition to any talks with the United States – is to be allowed to sell its oil at the levels that prevailed before Trump left the deal and restored sanctions.

Iranian crude exports were around 300,000 barrels per day or less in late June, industry sources said, a small fraction of the more than 2.5 million bpd Iran shipped in April 2018, the month before Trump abandoned the nuclear deal.

(Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Dubai, John Irish and Sudip Kar-Gupta in Paris; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

U.S. Navy says mine fragments suggest Iran behind Gulf tanker attack

An Emirati official watches members of the U.S. Navy Fifth Fleet as they prepare to escort journalists to the Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous tanker at a U.S. NAVCENT facility near the port of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates June 19, 2019. REUTERS/Christopher Pike

By Aziz El Yaakoubi

FUJAIRAH, United Arab Emirates (Reuters) – The United States sought on Wednesday to bolster its case for isolating Iran over its nuclear and regional activities by showing limpet mine fragments it said came from a damaged oil tanker and saying the ordinance looked Iranian in origin.

The Islamic Republic has denied involvement in explosive strikes on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman last week and four tankers off the United Arab Emirates on May 12, both near the Strait of Hormuz, a major conduit for global oil supplies.

But the incidents have fueled tensions that broke out with the U.S. pullout last year from world powers’ 2015 nuclear accord with Iran, followed by fresh U.S. sanctions to stifle Tehran’s vital oil trade, and a retaliatory Iranian threat this week to resume uranium enrichment in breach of the deal.

France and Germany said on Wednesday they would crank up efforts to halt any spiral toward conflict with Iran, but time was running out and the risk of war could not be ruled out.

Iran’s signal of preparedness to stockpile enriched uranium beyond the deal’s limit, and refine uranium to a fissile purity higher than deemed necessary for civilian uses, prompted U.S. President Donald Trump to warn on Tuesday he was ready to take military action to stop Tehran developing a nuclear bomb.

Iran denies it has such intentions.

But Trump also left open whether he would support the use of force to protect Gulf oil supplies Washington fears might be put in jeopardy by Iran in the brewing confrontation.

“We want to unify our efforts so that there is a de-escalation process that starts,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters in Paris.

“There is still time and we hope all the actors show more calm. There is still time, but only a little time.”

Iran, where hardline foes of detente with the West have been strengthened by Trump’s pressure campaign, said on Wednesday it would give European powers no more time beyond July 8 to save the nuclear deal by shielding its economy from U.S. sanctions.

President Hassan Rouhani said Iran’s actions were the “minimum” Tehran could do one year after the United States withdrew from the deal, but said its steps were reversible “if they return to their commitments”.

In another incident likely to aggravate the stand-off, a rocket crashed onto a site in southern Iraq used by foreign oil companies on Wednesday, including U.S. energy giant ExxonMobil, wounding three people.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack near the southern Iraqi city of Basra, not far from the Iranian border – the fourth time in a week that rockets have struck near U.S. installations.

An Iraqi security source said it appeared that Iran-backed groups in southern Iraq were behind the Basra incident.

U.S. DISPLAYS MINE FRAGMENTS, MAGNET

In the United Arab Emirates port of Fujairah on Wednesday, the U.S. Navy displayed pieces of limpet mines and a magnet it said its personnel extracted from one of two oil tankers attacked in the Gulf of Oman last week.

The U.S. military earlier released images it said showed Iranian Revolutionary Guards removing an unexploded mine from Japanese-owned tanker Kokuka Courageous, which was hit by blasts along with Norwegian-owned Front Altair tanker on June 13.

“The limpet mine that was used in the attack is distinguishable and also strikingly bearing a resemblance to Iranian mines that have already been publicly displayed in Iranian military parades,” Sean Kido, commanding officer of an explosive ordnance dive and salvage task group in the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT), told reporters.

Small fragments said to have been removed from the Kokuka Courageous were on display alongside a magnet purportedly left by the Revolutionary Guard squad allegedly captured on video.

The Japanese company that owns the Kokuka Courageous had said its ship was damaged by two “flying objects”, but NAVCENT dismissed this.

“The damage at the blast hole is consistent with a limpet mine attack, it is not consistent with an external flying object striking the ship,” Kido said, adding that nail holes visible in the hull indicated how the mine was attached to the ship’s hull.

The location of the mine above the ship’s waterline indicated the intention was not to sink the vessel, he said.

Two Western security sources told Reuters this week the attacks seemed calibrated to inflict only limited damage and avoid injury to show Iran could sow chaos if it wanted to, possibly to persuade Washington and other foes to back off rather than trigger conflict.

Kido also said NAVCENT had collected biometric information including fingerprints from the ship’s hull that would help in crafting a criminal case against the assailants.

The United States and Saudi Arabia have pointed fingers at Iran for all the tanker attacks, but several European nations have said more evidence is needed.

“The dynamics of the two attacks are not clear, and the video that the U.S. said demonstrated Iran’s role was also not clear,” a Western diplomat in the Gulf told Reuters.

(Additional reporting by Abdelhadi al-Ramahi, Sylvia Westall and Davide Barbuscia in Dubai, Aref Mohammed and Ahmed Rasheed in Iraq, Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London, John Irish and Michel Rose in Paris, Joseph Nasr in Berlin; Writing by Mark Heinrich; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

Iran denies U.S. accusation of destabilizing the region

Iran denies U.S. accusation of destabilizing the region

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Iran’s foreign ministry denied on Wednesday U.S. accusations that the Islamic Republic is playing a destabilizing role in the region, state media reported.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had said on Tuesday that Iran is carrying out “destabilizing actions” by supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon, supplying missiles to Houthi forces in Yemen and sending weapons and militia fighters to Syria.

“Repeating the groundless accusations and lies will not help solve the large and strategic mistakes America has made in recent decades against Iran and the region,” foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi was quoted as saying by state media.

“While there’s time remaining, Mr. Tillerson should become more familiar with the realities and history of the region and American policies, and its effects which has led to serious instability and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent women, children and people.”

Tillerson also said during a visit to Brussels on Tuesday that Iran must comply with the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal under which the Islamic Republic agreed to curbs on its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of a number of sanctions.

U.S. president Donald Trump dealt a blow to the pact in October by refusing to certify that Tehran was complying with the accord even though international inspectors said it was.

(Reporting By Babak Dehghanpisheh; Editing by Catherine Evans)

Iran displays missile, thousands march in marking 1979 U.S. embassy takeover

Iran's national flags are seen on a square in Tehran February 10, 2012, a day before the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution.

By Babak Dehghanpisheh

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Iran put a ballistic missile on display as thousands marched on Saturday to mark the anniversary of the 1979 seizure of the U.S. embassy, with a senior official accusing President Donald Trump of a “crazy” return to confrontation with Tehran.

Turnout for the annual Iranian street rallies commemorating the embassy takeover, a pivotal event of the Islamic Revolution, appeared higher than in recent years when Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama pursued detente with Tehran.

Last month, Trump broke ranks with European allies, Russia and China by refusing to re-certify Iran’s compliance with its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, reached during Obama’s tenure. Under that deal, most international sanctions on Iran were lifted in exchange for Tehran curbing nuclear activity seen to pose a risk of being put to developing atomic bombs.

Iran has reaffirmed its commitment to the deal and U.N. inspectors have verified Tehran is complying with its terms, but Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has threatened to “shred” the pact if the United States pulls out.

“All the governments confirm that the American president is a crazy individual who is taking others toward the direction of suicide,” Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, told a rally in Tehran, state media reported.

“Trump’s policies against the people of Iran have brought them out into the streets today,” Shamkhani said.

He did not identify the governments he had in mind. The other parties to the nuclear deal – Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany – have voiced disquiet at Trump’s opposition to it, fearing this could stir new Middle East instability.

But the Europeans share U.S. concern over Iran’s ballistic missile program and “destabilizing” regional behavior.

 

NOT NEGOTIABLE

Senior Iranian officials have repeatedly said that the Islamic Republic’s missile program is solely defensive in nature and is not negotiable.

In a sign of defiance, a Ghadr ballistic missile with a range of 2,000 km (1,240 miles) was put on display near the ex-U.S. embassy in Tehran, now a cultural center, during Saturday’s street demonstration, Tasnim news agency said.

“That America thinks Iran is going to put aside its military power is a childish dream,” said Brigadier General Hossein Salami, deputy head of its elite Revolutionary Guards which oversees the missile development, according to Tasnim.

Fars news agency posted pictures of demonstrators nearby burning an effigy of Trump and holding up signs saying “Death to America”.

Iran and the United States severed diplomatic relations soon after the 1979 revolution, during which hardline students seized the embassy and took 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.

Shamkhani spoke a few days after Khamenei said the United States was the “number one enemy” of the Islamic Republic.

U.S.-Iranian tensions have risen anew at a time when Tehran has been improving political and military ties with Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Tehran on Wednesday. Khamenei told him that Tehran and Moscow must step up cooperation to isolate the United States and help defuse conflict in the Middle East.

Iran and Russia are both fighting on the side of Syrian President Bashar al Assad against rebels, some of them U.S.-backed, and Islamist militants trying to overthrow him.

 

(Reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh; editing by Mark Heinrich)

 

Iran’s Guards flex muscle in Middle East despite Trump warning

FILE PHOTO: Members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards march during a military parade to commemorate the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war in Tehran September 22, 2007. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl/File Photo

By Babak Dehghanpisheh

BEIRUT (Reuters) – A week after U.S. President Donald Trump delivered a blistering speech about Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the most powerful military and economic force in the Islamic Republic has shown it has no intention of curbing its activities in the Middle East.

In defiance of other world powers, Trump chose in a speech last Friday not to certify that Tehran is complying with a pact to curb Iran’s nuclear work and singled out the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), accusing Tehran of destabilizing the region.

A senior IRGC commander said after the speech Trump was “acting crazy” and was following U.S. strategy of increasing “the shadow of war in the region”.

Iran’s Shi’ite militia proxies have made formidable military gains in recent months in Syria as well as Iraq, stretching from northern Iraq to a string of smaller cities and this week, after the Trump speech, re-captured the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

“In the short-run clearly Trump has increased the power and aggressiveness of the IRGC,” said Abbas Milani, the director of the Iranian Studies program at Stanford University.

“The IRGC can’t back down from a street fight. Their domestic and regional prestige is predicated on the fact that they fight a good fight and they don’t back down.”

The day after Trump spoke, the head of the Guards’ al Quds overseas operations, Major General Qassem Soleimani, traveled to Iraq’s Kurdistan region. He held talks about the escalating crisis between Kurdish authorities and the Iraqi government after a Kurdish independence referendum.

The niece of the late Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, Alaa Talabani, told the al Hadath TV channel that Soleimani met with members of her family on Saturday. He had come to pay respects to Jalal, a former Iraqi president and founder of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party who died this month.

Other Iraqi and Kurdish officials told Reuters Soleimani held meetings with Kurdish leaders to persuade them to retreat from Kirkuk ahead of the Iraqi army push into the city.

“I don’t deny that Mr. Qassem Soleimani gave us the advice to find a solution to Kirkuk,” she said. “He said Kirkuk should return to the (Iraqi) law and constitution and to have an agreement about Kirkuk and give up the intransigence about the referendum which was a decision not thought out.”

LIGHTNING ASSAULT

Within days, Iran’s mostly Shi’ite allies in Baghdad launched a lightning assault, pushing Kurdish fighters out of disputed territories such as Kirkuk and consequently strengthening Iran’s hand in Iraq.

Commanders of the Kurdish forces, known as the Peshmerga, have accused Iran of orchestrating the Shi’ite-led Iraqi central government’s push into areas under their control, a charge senior Iranian officials have denied.

A video posted by the Kurdish Rudaw channel online on Wednesday showed an Iraqi Shi’ite militiaman loyal to Iran hanging a picture of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in the Kirkuk governorate office.

Iran, which has a large Kurdish minority, has reason to be wary of Iraqi Kurdish independence. It fears it might encourage its own Kurds, who have also pushed for separatism.

After the independence vote in Iraqi Kurdistan on September 25, videos posted online showed hundreds of people celebrating in the streets in the Kurdish areas of Iran.

FRONT-LINE PLAYER

Regional analysts say the emergence of Iran in Iraq, Syria, Kurdistan and Lebanon, where it wields influence through its allied Shi’ite Lebanese Hezbollah militia, means Tehran has become a front-line player in the region which Washington could not afford to ignore.

“Trump’s stupidity should not distract us from America’s deceitfulness … If the U.S. tears up the (nuclear) deal, we will shred it,” said Khamenei. “Americans are angry because the Islamic Republic of Iran has managed to thwart their plots in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and other countries in the region.”

Speaking after Trump’s speech, Amir Ali Hajizadeh, head of the Guards’ aerospace division, said: “From the start of the Islamic revolution … (presidents) have increased the shadow of war in the region …

“Dear brothers and sisters today Trump is acting crazy to gain concessions through this method.”

The ramping up of tension could put the two countries on a collision course in the Gulf where clashes have only been narrowly avoided in recent months.

Small boats from the Revolutionary Guards’ navy veered close to U.S. naval vessels in the Gulf at least twice this year, prompting the U.S. military to fire warning shots and flares.

In August, an unarmed Iranian drone came within 100 feet (31 meters) of a U.S. Navy warplane, risking a crash, according to a U.S. official.

Some recent naval showdowns between Iran and the United States took place near the Strait of Hormuz, a waterway where up to 30 percent of global oil exports pass annually.

During the presidential campaign last September, Trump vowed that any Iranian vessels that harassed the U.S. Navy in the Gulf would be “shot out of the water”.

POTENTIAL FLASHPOINT

The Guards could also target U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria through tens of thousands of loyal Shi’ite militia fighters without directly acknowledging a role in any attacks.

“The IRGC can claim ignorance of Shi’ite militia attacks against the U.S. military,” said Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who has done extensive research on the Guards.

In early October, an American soldier was killed in Iraq by an explosively formed penetrator, or EFP, a type of roadside bomb which was often used by Iran’s Shi’ite militia proxies in Iraq, according to the U.S. military.

“This is the first time that we’ve seen it used in this area,” U.S. Army Colonel Ryan Dillon, a coalition spokesman, said. Dillon said the U.S. military has not yet concluded who carried out the attack.

Dozens of American soldiers in Iraq were killed and injured by EFPs used by militia groups linked to Iran after the 2003 invasion of Iraq by U.S. forces, according to the U.S. military.

Asked about the threat posed by Shi’ite militias allied with Iran in Iraq and Syria, particularly after Trump’s speech, Dillon said: “We’re always assessing the threats no matter where they come from. During certain announcements or certain dates or when certain events happen, we make proper adjustments.”

Trump’s new plan, observers say, will also weaken a group that had made progress in curbing the Guards’ political and economic ambitions in recent years: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and the pragmatist politicians in his cabinet.

Since becoming president in 2013, Rouhani and members of his cabinet repeatedly pushed back against the Guards’ economic influence and involvement in political matters.

Now, Rouhani’s push against the Guards has been tempered because of the hardening in Trump’s approach to Tehran, regional observers said. “What this has done is that even those who were critics are now defending the Revolutionary Guards,” said Nasser Hadian-Jazy, a political science professor at Tehran University.

(Reporting By Babak Dehghanpisheh and additional reporting by Maher Chmaytelli in Erbil, editing by Nick Tattersall and Peter Millership)

Iran plans to buy Kazakh uranium ore, seek Russia help to make nuclear fuel

Head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization Ali Akbar Salehi attends the lecture "Iran after the agreement: Hopes & Concerns" in Vienna, Austria, September 28, 2016. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran plans to buy 950 tonnes of uranium ore from Kazakhstan over three years and expects to get Russian help in producing nuclear fuel, its top nuclear official said in remarks published on Saturday.

The acquisition would not violate Iran’s landmark 2015 deal with world powers over its disputed nuclear program as the deal did not set limits on the Islamic Republic’s supplies of uranium ore.

The report by the Iranian Students’ News Agency ISNA comes a day after the U.N. atomic watchdog said Iran’s official stock of enriched uranium had fallen by half after large amounts stuck in pipes was recategorised as unrecoverable under a process agreed with the major powers.

“About 650 tonnes is to be delivered in two shipments over two years and 300 tonnes during the third year and this shipment is to be returned to Kazakhstan (after enrichment),” Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, told ISNA in an interview.

Iran has asked a body overseeing its 2015 nuclear accord with world powers to approve the purchase of uranium ore and was still awaiting Britain’s agreement, Salehi said.

“Five of the members of the committee overseeing the (nuclear deal) have given their written approval, but Britain changed its mind at the last moment, considering the U.S. elections and Middle East problems,” Salehi said, without elaborating.

There was no immediate reaction from Britain to the report.

“In nuclear talks … we reached a final agreement on jointly producing nuclear fuel with Russia,” Salehi said. “We asked for their help in this regard… and it was agreed for the Russians to give us advisory help.”

The nuclear agreement brokered by Britain, France, Germany, China, Russia and the United States lifted sanctions against Iran in return for curbs on Tehran’s nuclear program.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

Analysis: Trump’s hostility to help keep Iran’s Rouhani in office, but make his life harder

Iran President

By Parisa Hafezi

ANKARA (Reuters) – Donald Trump’s bellicose rhetoric towards Iran now appears likely to help keep President Hassan Rouhani in office for another term, but will make it harder for the Iranian leader’s team of moderates to govern.

With an election due in three months and a hostile new administration in the White House, Iran’s hardliners seem to have backed off from trying to reclaim the presidency for their faction, at least for now.

No single candidate has emerged as a potential hardline champion to challenge the relative moderate Rouhani in the vote. Instead, officials speak of ideological rivals uniting behind him as best suited to deal with a Trump presidency.

“To protect the Islamic Republic against foreign threats we need to put aside our disputes and unite against our enemy,” said a senior official speaking on condition of anonymity like other figures within Iran contacted for this story.

“Under the current circumstances, Rouhani seems the best option for the establishment.”

Still, Rouhani’s supporters worry that even though hardliners no longer seem intent on removing him, they will take advantage of confrontation with the Trump administration to weaken the president at every turn.

“To cement their grip in power, hardliners will do whatever they can to provoke Trump. From missile tests to fiery speeches,” said a former senior official, close to Rouhani.

“By making Rouhani a lame-duck president, they will try to prevent any change in the balance of power in Iran.”

Rouhani, elected in a landslide in 2013 on a pledge to reduce Iran’s isolation, is the face of Tehran’s deal with the Obama administration to curb Iran’s nuclear program in return for the lifting of U.S. and European sanctions.

Trump and other U.S. Republicans have frequently disparaged that deal, as have hardliners in Iran.

For now, the Iranian hardliners appear to have concluded that they still need Rouhani in office, if only so Washington rather than Tehran will be blamed if the deal collapses, said Iran analyst Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group.

“With the deal in jeopardy, the system will be in vital need of Rouhani’s team of smiling diplomats and economic technocrats to shift the blame to the U.S. and keep Iran’s economy afloat,” said Vaez.

But ultimately, said analyst Meir Javedanfar, any atmosphere of heightened tension with Washington benefits the hardliners and weakens the moderates in Iran.

“Now with Trump in charge, Iran’s hardliners can sleep easy as they thrive on threats and intimidation from the U.S., it feeds their narrative,” said Javedanfar, an Iranian-born Israeli lecturer on Iran at Israel’s Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.

PRESERVATION

Under Iran’s theocratic governing system, the elected president is subordinate to the unelected supreme leader, 77-year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a hardliner in power since succeeding revolutionary founder Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989.

A hardline watchdog body can control the elected government by vetting candidates before they stand and by vetoing policies.

Khamenei uses anti-American sentiment as the glue to hold together the faction-ridden leadership, but he will not risk a total collapse in relations with Washington that might destabilize Iran, say Iranian officials.

“The leader’s top priority has always been preserving the Islamic Republic … A hardline president might intensify tension between Tehran and America,” said an official close to Khamenei’s camp.

Rouhani’s efforts to open up Iran to less hostile relations with the West still have to be couched in the rhetoric of anti-Americanism that has been a pillar of Iranian rule since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

On Friday, hundreds of thousands marked the anniversary of the revolution, taking to the streets chanting slogans that include “Death to America”. At such events, Rouhani can strike a note that sounds as hardline as anyone. [ID:nL5N1FV1SX]

“We all are followers of our leader Khamenei,” Rouhani said in a speech that cast his own re-election bid as an opportunity for Iranians to demonstrate their defiance of Washington. “Our nation will give a proper answer to all those threats and pressures in the upcoming election.”

For his part, Khamenei said in a speech earlier this week that Trump had shown “the real face of America”, echoing the hardline Iranian criticism of the Obama administration’s comparatively accommodating stance as insincere or devious.

Khamenei dismissed a Trump administration threat to put Iran “on notice” for carrying out missile tests. But he also avoided signaling a break with the nuclear accord, and the speech was interpreted as a sign that he will stick by Rouhani for now.

“The leader’s speech showed that the leadership has agreed on a less confrontational line. They prefer to wait and see Trump’s actions and not to act based on his rhetoric,” said Tehran-based political analyst Saeed Leylaz.

Ordinary Iranian voters also seem inclined to keep Rouhani in power. Many complain that they have still seen few economic benefits from the lifting of sanctions, and those who hoped Rouhani would reform restrictive social policies say they are disappointed by the lack of meaningful change so far.

Nevertheless, there seems to be little appetite to reverse course at the election and restore power to a confrontational hardliner like Rouhani’s predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

“I did not want to vote. Nothing has changed under Rouhani. But now I have to choose between bad and worse in Iran. We cannot afford a hardline president when Trump is in power,” said high-school teacher Ghamze Rastgou in Tehran.

(Editing by Peter Graff)

Iranian minister denies recent mid-range ballistic missile test

Iranian Defence Minister Dehghan delivers a speech as he attends 5th Moscow Conference on International Security in Moscow

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran’s minister of defence denied on Monday that the Revolutionary Guards had recently tested a medium-range ballistic missile but reiterated that Tehran had not stopped bolstering what it insists is a purely defensive arsenal.

Earlier, the Tasnim news agency quoted Brigadier General Ali Abdollahi as saying Iran had successfully tested a precision-guided missile two weeks ago with a range of 2,000 kms (1,240 miles).

The Islamic Republic has worked to improve the range and accuracy of its missiles over the past year, which it says will make them a more potent deterrent with conventional warheads against its enemy Israel.

“We haven’t test-fired a missile with the range media reported,” Iranian Defence Minister Hossein Dehghan was quoted as saying by the state news agency IRNA.

The United States and some European powers have said other recent tests violate a United Nations resolution that prohibits Iran from firing any missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. Iran says the missiles are not designed to carry nuclear warheads, which it does not possess.

Washington has imposed new sanctions on Tehran over recent tests, even after it lifted nuclear-related sanctions in January as Tehran implemented the nuclear deal it reached with world powers last year.

Iran’s top leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in March that missile development was key to the Islamic Republic’s future, in order to maintain its defensive power and resist threats from its enemies.

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin; Writing by Sam Wilkin; editing by Richard Balmforth)