U.S. sees strong shared interests with European Union on Iran concerns

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. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi//File Pho

WASHINGTON/BERLIN (Reuters) – The United States on Sunday said it hopes to use strong shared interests that have emerged with its European Union partners in recent months to move forward on addressing Iran’s nuclear program, missile development and role in regional conflicts.

A State Department official said the shared interests could form a “foundation to continue to work together moving forward.”

Iran said on Sunday that it would join a meeting with diplomats from Britain, Germany, France, China and Russia in Vienna on Friday to discuss next steps after the May 8 decision by U.S. President Donald Trump to exit the 2015 nuclear accord.

It said Washington would not participate in the meeting of the joint commission set up by the six world powers, Iran and the European Union to handle any complaints about the deal’s implementation.

The German newspaper Welt am Sonntag cited an unnamed senior EU official as saying there were also discussions about a possible new pact between Iran and world powers that would cover the same ground as the 2015 deal but with some additions to appease the United States.

These could include provisions to address U.S. concerns over Iran’s ballistic missile program and Tehran’s support of armed groups in the Middle East, the source said.

“We have to get away from the name ‘Vienna nuclear agreement’ and add in a few additional elements. Only that will convince President Trump to agree and lift sanctions again,” the senior EU official told the paper.

Such an agreement could in the future include financial aid for Iran, the report said.

The State Department official said Washington hoped the EU would focus “on the central issue here:  Iran’s multiple set of malign behaviors with regard to its nuclear program, missile development, terrorism, regional conflicts, and other issues.”

Three EU sources who were part of negotiations to keep Trump from quitting the nuclear deal said Friday’s meeting would address only the implementation of the 2015 deal, but not offer Iran financial aid in exchange for concessions.

In Tehran, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi rejected reports of a proposed new agreement as “irrelevant claims”, the semi-official Tasnim news agency reported.

“A meeting set for the next few days for the first joint commission without the United States … will only cover issues of the nuclear accord between Iran and the other members,” Qasemi said.

Earlier, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi said on state television that the “joint commission … will be held at Iran’s request, and without the United States, to discuss the consequences of America’s withdrawal, and how the remaining countries can continue their commitment to the deal.”

On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will outline a “diplomatic roadmap” and call for broad support from European and other allies to apply pressure on Iran to force it back to the negotiating table, as well as their support to address “the totality of Iran’s threats”.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal in Berlin and Damon Darlin in Washington, Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Ankara, Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky, Dale Hudson, William Maclean)

Israeli forces kill 28 in Gaza protests as anger mounts over U.S. Embassy

A female Palestinian demonstrator gestures during a protest against U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem and ahead of the 70th anniversary of Nakba, at the Israel-Gaza border, east of Gaza City May 14, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Maayan Lubell

GAZA BORDER (Reuters) – Israeli forces killed at least 28 Palestinians along the Gaza border on Monday, health officials said, as demonstrators streamed to the frontier on the day the United States prepared to open its embassy in Jerusalem.

It was the highest Palestinian single-day death toll since a series of protests dubbed the “Great March of Return” began at the border with Israel on March 30 and since a 2014 Gaza war.

The health officials said 900 Palestinians were wounded, about 450 of them by live bullets.

Tens of thousands gathered at the frontier on Monday, some of them approaching Israel’s border fence – a line Israeli leaders vowed Palestinians would not be allowed to breach. Black smoke from tyres set alight by demonstrators rose in the air.

“Today is the big day when we will cross the fence and tell Israel and the world we will not accept being occupied forever,” said Gaza science teacher Ali, who declined to give his last name.

“Many may get martyred today, so many, but the world will hear our message. Occupation must end,” he said.

A Palestinian demonstrator reacts during a protest against U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem and ahead of the 70th anniversary of Nakba, at the Israel-Gaza border in the southern Gaza Strip May 14, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

A Palestinian demonstrator reacts during a protest against U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem and ahead of the 70th anniversary of Nakba, at the Israel-Gaza border in the southern Gaza Strip May 14, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Later in the day, Israeli leaders and a U.S. delegation including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and President Donald Trump’s daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, were due to attend the opening of the embassy relocated from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

“A great day for Israel,” the U.S. president, who stoked Arab anger by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December, said in a tweet.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in lockstep with Trump over fulfilling a long-standing U.S. promise to move the embassy to the holy city and over the president’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal last week, echoed the sentiment.

“What a moving day for the people of Israel and the State of Israel,” Netanyahu wrote on Twitter.

The 28 Palestinian dead on Monday included a 14-year-old boy, a medic and a man in a wheelchair who had been pictured on social media using a slingshot.

The Israeli military identified three of those killed as armed militants whom it said tried to place explosives near the fence in the southern Gaza Strip.

The latest casualties raised the Palestinian death toll to 73 since the protests started six weeks ago. No Israeli casualties have been reported.

“The IDF (Israel Defense Forces) will act forcefully against any terrorist activity and will operate to prevent attacks against Israelis,” the military said in a statement.

The killings have drawn international criticism, but the United States has echoed Israel in accusing Gaza’s ruling Hamas movement of instigating violence, an allegation it denies.

“LONG OVERDUE”

Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s Middle East peace envoy, said on Twitter that “taking the long-overdue step of moving our Embassy is not a departure from our strong commitment to facilitate a lasting peace deal. Rather, it is a necessary condition for it.”

But Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah accused the United States of “blatant violations of international law”.

The Palestinians, who want their own future state with its capital in East Jerusalem, have been outraged by Trump’s shift from previous administrations’ preference for keeping the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv pending progress in peace efforts.

Those talks have been frozen since 2014. Other international powers worry that the U.S. move could also inflame Palestinian unrest in the occupied West Bank, which Israel captured along with East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war.

The protests are scheduled to culminate on Tuesday, the day Palestinians mourn as the “Nakba” or “Catastrophe” when, in 1948, hundreds of thousands of them were driven out of their homes or fled the fighting around Israel’s creation.

“Choosing a tragic day in Palestinian history (to open the Jerusalem embassy) shows great insensibility and disrespect for the core principles of the peace process,” Hamdallah wrote.

Most countries say the status of Jerusalem – a sacred city to Jews, Muslims and Christians – should be determined in a final peace settlement and that moving their embassies now would prejudge any such deal.

But Guatemala, which received support from Israel in its counter-insurgency campaigns in the 1980s, plans to open an embassy in Jerusalem on Wednesday. Its ambassador visited the new site, in an office building in the western part of the city, on Monday. Paraguay is to follow suit later this month.

In London, the British government said it had no plans to move its Israel embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and said it disagreed with the U.S. decision to do so.

The Russian government said it feared the embassy move would increase tensions across the Middle East.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Syrian Observatory: Israeli raid in Syria killed Iranians

An Israeli tank can be seen near the Israeli side of the border with Syria in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel May 9, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Angus McDowall and Jeffrey Heller

BEIRUT/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Wednesday an Israeli attack on Iranian military facilities south of Damascus had killed at least 15 people, including eight Iranians.

The reports of an Israeli attack in Kisweh late on Tuesday emerged after U.S. President Donald Trump announced he was pulling out of the Iranian nuclear deal.

The UK-based Observatory said the missile strikes hit depots and rocket launchers, killing 15 individuals including eight Iranians. Reuters could not independently verify the report.

A commander in the regional alliance fighting alongside Damascus said that Israel had hit a Syrian army base without causing casualties.

Trump’s hard tack against the nuclear deal, while welcomed by Israel, has stirred fears of a possible regional flare-up.

Within hours of the White House announcement on Tuesday night, Syrian state media said that its air defenses had brought down two Israeli missiles.

Israel’s military declined to comment on the reports, shortly after it said it had identified “irregular activity” by Iranian forces in Syria and went onto high alert. The military had instructed authorities in the Golan Heights bordering Syria to ready bomb shelters and mobilized some reservist forces.

Iran and its ally, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, have helped Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s military with critical support in the seven-year-old war, beating back rebels and Islamic State.

Tehran’s growing clout in Syria alarms arch foe Israel, which has struck what it describes as Iranian deployments or arms transfers to Hezbollah scores of times during the conflict.

Last month, an air strike on the T-4 air base near Syria’s Homs city killed seven Iranians. Tehran blamed Israel and vowed to retaliate.

Israeli-Iranian confrontation would likely remain limited after Washington abandoned the nuclear deal, but conflict between the two regional powers will flare on in Syria, experts said on Wednesday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Russia to press its leader, Vladimir Putin, to rein in the Iranians along the Syrian front.

FLARE UPS

Ghaleb Kandil, a Lebanese political analyst with close ties to Hezbollah and Damascus, said he expected the two enemies to exchange “limited, calculated attacks” in Syria’s war as deterrents.

“It’s clear that everyone realizes the risks of a big confrontation … Iran does not want (this) confrontation, and Israel knows its consequences,” he said.

The occupied Golan, which Israel captured from Syria in a 1967 war, was quiet on Wednesday.

“The children are in kindergartens and the crop pickers are out in the fields, all agricultural work is continuing as normal and tourists are arriving. There have been very few tour group cancellations,” said Diti Goldstein, a local tourism official.

Still, experts said they expected flare ups to persist.

“Israel has military dominance and free hand to carry out those kinds of attacks” on targets inside Syria, said Gary Samore, who served as a deputy national security adviser to former U.S. President George W. Bush.

Sooner or later, Shi’ite militias which Tehran has deployed in Syria will also likely attack Israeli military sites near the border, he said at an annual security conference near Tel Aviv.

But Samore added that Russia, a leading powerbroker in Syria and key Assad ally, wants to keep things “under control” and avoid “a big war between Israel and Iran” on Syrian territory.

In 2015, Russia and Israel set up a hotline to prevent accidental clashes between their forces in Syria.

In an interview with Israeli news site YNet, Israeli Intelligence Minister Israel Katz said the government’s strategy was “to get Iran out of Syria without starting a war”.

“We want the Iranians to be forced into making the decision to strategically retreat from Syria,” Katz said.

(Reporting By Angus McDowall in Beirut; Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Additional reporting by Ellen Francis in BeirutWriting by Ellen Francis in Beirut; Editing by Angus MacSwan, William Maclean)

Europeans scramble to save Iran deal after Trump reneges

U.S. President Donald Trump displays a presidential memorandum after announcing his intent to withdraw from the JCPOA Iran nuclear agreement in the Diplomatic Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., May 8, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

By Yara Bayoumy and Brian Love

WASHINGTON/PARIS (Reuters) – Dismayed European allies sought to salvage the international nuclear pact with Iran on Wednesday after President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the landmark accord, while Tehran poured scorn on the U.S. leader.

“The deal is not dead. There’s an American withdrawal from the deal but the deal is still there,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who had been reluctant to back the deal, said: “Mr Trump, I tell you on behalf of the Iranian people: You’ve made a mistake…I said many times from the first day: don’t trust America.”

French President Emmanuel Macron was due to speak later in the day to his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani, Le Drian said. Iran also signaled its willingness to talk.

Trump announced on Tuesday he would reimpose U.S. economic sanctions on Iran to undermine what he called “a horrible, one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made”, which was “defective at its core”.

The fruit of more than a decade of diplomacy, the agreement was concluded in 2015 by the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Russia, China and Iran.

It was designed to prevent Iran obtaining a nuclear bomb in return for lifting sanctions that had crippled its economy.

Trump complained that the deal, the signature foreign policy achievement of his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, did not address Iran’s ballistic missile program, its nuclear activities beyond 2025 or its role in conflicts in Yemen and Syria.

His decision raises the risk of deepening conflicts in the Middle East, puts the United States at odds with European diplomatic and business interests, and casts uncertainty over global oil supplies. Oil prices rose more than 2 percent, with Brent hitting a 3-1/2-year high. [O/R]

The deal could also strengthen the hand of hardliners at the expense of reformers in Iran’s political scene.

“REGION DESERVES BETTER”

France’s Le Drian, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) all said Iran was honoring its commitments under the accord.

“The region deserves better than further destabilization provoked by American withdrawal,” Le Drian said.

The European Union said it would remain committed to the deal and would ensure sanctions on Iran remain lifted, as long as Tehran meets its commitments.

The Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin was “deeply concerned” by the withdrawal, the RIA news agency said

Merkel said that, while the existing deal should not be called into question, there should be discussion of “a broader deal that goes beyond it”. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson spoke of a “follow-on agreement” but said it was now up to Washington to come up with concrete proposals.

Macron’s contact with Rouhani will be followed by meetings next week involving the Iranians and European counterparts from France, Britain and Germany.

But Iran’s Khamenei appeared skeptical, saying: “I don’t trust these three countries.”

The prospects of saving the deal without Washington depends in large part on whether international companies are willing and able still to do business with Iran despite the U.S. sanctions.

Le Drian said meetings would be held with major firms including oil giant Total <TOTF.PA>.

In a harbinger of what could be in store, Trump’s new ambassador to Germany said German businesses should halt their activities in Iran immediately.

French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said the United States should not consider itself the world’s “economic policeman”. Britain and France said they would do their utmost to protect their business interests in Iran, while Germany said it was seeking details of the effect of U.S. sanctions.

European companies including carmaker PSA <PEUP.PA>, plane manufacturer Airbus <AIR.PA> and engineering group Siemens <SIEGn.DE> said they were watching the situation.

In a speech carried on his official website, Khamenei said Trump’s announcement had been “silly and superficial”, adding: “He had maybe more than 10 lies in his comments.”

“DEATH TO AMERICA!”

Lawmakers in Iran’s parliament burned a U.S. flag and a symbolic copy of the deal, known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), chanting “Death to America!”.

President Hassan Rouhani, a reformist who had hoped that the deal would boost living standards in Iran, struck a more pragmatic tone in a televised speech, saying Iran would negotiate with European Union countries, China and Russia.

“If at the end of this short period we conclude that we can fully benefit from the JCPOA with the cooperation of all countries, the deal will remain,” he said.

Trump’s decision adds to the strain on the transatlantic alliance since he took office 16 months ago. One by one, European leaders came to Washington and tried to meet his demands, while pleading with him to preserve the deal.

The Trump administration kept the door open to negotiating another deal with allies, but it is far from clear whether the Europeans would pursue that option or be able to convince Iran to accept it.

China’s foreign ministry said Beijing would defend the deal and urged parties “to assume a responsible attitude”.

A Western diplomat who declined to be named was more pointed about the decision. “It announces sanctions for which the first victims will be Trump’s European allies,” the diplomat said, adding that it was clear Trump did not care about the alliance.

Abandoning the pact was one of the most consequential decisions of Trump’s “America First” policy, which has led him to quit the global Paris climate accord, come close to a trade war with China and pull out of an Asian-Pacific trade deal.

It also appeared to reflect the growing influence within the administration of Iran hawks such as new National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who arrived in Pyongyang on Wednesday to prepare for a summit that Trump hopes will secure North Korea’s denuclearisation.

COMPLYING WITH DEAL

Iran denies long-held Western suspicions that it tried in the past to develop atomic weapons and says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.

Senior U.S. officials themselves have said several times that Iran is in technical compliance with the pact.

Renewing sanctions would make it much harder for Iran to sell its oil abroad or use the international banking system.

Iran is the third-largest member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and pumps about 3.8 million barrels per day of crude, or just under 4 percent of global supply. China, India, Japan and South Korea buy most of its 2.5 million bpd of exports.

Its rial currency plunged to a record low against the U.S. dollar in the free market, after sliding for months because of a weak economy, financial difficulties at local banks and heavy demand for dollars among Iranians who feared that renewed U.S. sanctions would hit Iranian exports hard.

“I am scared,” 47-year-old Isfahan school teacher Morad Sabzevari said by telephone. “I listened to Trump’s speech on English news channels last night…It was a declaration of war against Iran … It means dark days and months are ahead of us.”

The U.S. Treasury says sanctions related to Iran’s energy, auto and financial sectors will be reimposed in three and six months.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said a license for Boeing Co <BA.N> to sell passenger jets to Iran will be revoked, scuttling a $38 billion deal. The ban will also hit Europe’s Airbus <AIR.PA>, whose planes contain U.S.-made parts.

Trump said the nuclear agreement did not prevent Iran from cheating and continuing to pursue nuclear weapons.

“It is clear to me that we cannot prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb under the decaying and rotten structure of the current agreement,” he said.

Trump said he was willing to negotiate a new deal with Iran, but Iran has already ruled that out.

Iran’s growing military and political power in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq worries the United States, Israel and Washington’s Gulf Arab allies such as Saudi Arabia.

Among the few nations to welcome Trump’s decision were Israel and Saudi Arabia, Iran’s arch-foes in the Middle East.

Less than 24 hours after Trump’s announcement, Saudi Arabia said it had intercepted missiles fired at Riyadh by the Iran-aligned Houthi forces it is fighting in Yemen.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Additional reporting by Tim Ahmann, Makini Brice, Warren Strobel, Jonathan Landay and Arshad Mohammed, Patricia Zengerle, David Lawder, Mohammad Zargham in Washington, Ayenat Mersie in New York, Sybille de La Hamaide, John Irish and Tim Hepher in Paris, Parisa Hafezi in Ankara, David Milliken and Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London and Andrew Torchia in Dubai; Writing by Angus MacSwan and Kevin Liffey)

Trump pulls U.S. from Iran nuclear deal, to revive sanctions

U.S. President Donald Trump reacts to a question from the media as National Security Advisor John Bolton and Vice President Mike Pence look on after the president announced his intention to withdraw from the JCPOA Iran nuclear agreement during a statement in the Diplomatic Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., May 8, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump said on Tuesday he was reimposing economic sanctions on Iran and pulling the United States out of an international agreement aimed at stopping Tehran from obtaining a nuclear bomb.

The decision is likely to raise the risk of conflict in the Middle East, upset America’s European allies and disrupt global oil supplies.

“I am announcing today that the United States will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal,” Trump said at the White House. “In a few moments, I will sign a presidential memorandum to begin reinstating U.S. nuclear sanctions on the Iranian regime. We will be instituting the highest level of economic sanctions.”

The 2015 deal, worked out by the United States, five other international powers and Iran, eased sanctions on Iran in exchange for Tehran limiting its nuclear program.

Trump says the agreement, the signature foreign policy achievement of Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, does not address Iran’s ballistic missile program, its nuclear activities beyond 2025 nor its role in conflicts in Yemen and Syria.

Iran has ruled out renegotiating the agreement and threatened to retaliate, although it has not said exactly how, if Washington pulled out.

Renewing sanctions would make it much harder for Iran to sell its oil abroad or use the international banking system.

(Additional reporting by Tim Ahmann, Makini Brice, Warren Strobel and Arshad Mohammed in Washington, Ayenat Mersie in New York, Sybille de La Hamaide, John Irish and Tim Hepher in Paris, Parisa Hafezi in Ankara, Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London, Andrew Torchia in Dubai; Writing by William Maclean and Alistair Bell; Editing by Peter Graff, Yara Bayoumy and Bill Trott)

Israel presents Iran nuclear files, putting pressure on U.S. to scrap deal

Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a news conference at the Ministry of Defence in Tel Aviv, Israel April 30, 2018. REUTERS/ Amir Cohen

By Stephen Farrell

TEL AVIV (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stepped up pressure on the United States to pull out of a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, holding a primetime address on Israeli TV to present what he called evidence of a secret Iranian nuclear weapons program.

Intelligence experts and diplomats said he did not seem to have presented a “smoking gun” showing that Iran had violated the agreement, although he may have helped make a case on behalf of hawks in the U.S. administration who want to scrap it.

Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a news conference at the Ministry of Defence in Tel Aviv, Israel, April 30, 2018. REUTERS/ Amir Cohen

Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a news conference at the Ministry of Defence in Tel Aviv, Israel, April 30, 2018. REUTERS/ Amir Cohen

Most of the purported evidence Netanyahu unveiled dated to the period before the 2015 accord was signed, although he said Iran had also kept important files on nuclear technology since then, and continued adding to its “nuclear weapons knowledge”.

Tehran dismissed Netanyahu as “the boy who cried wolf”, and called his presentation propaganda.

President Donald Trump has threatened to pull the United States out of the international deal unless it is renegotiated by May 12. After Netanyahu spoke, Trump repeated his criticism of the deal, suggesting he backed the Israeli leader’s remarks.

“Iran’s leaders repeatedly deny ever pursuing nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu said at Israel’s Defence Ministry, standing in front of stacks of files representing what he described as a vault full of Iranian nuclear documents obtained weeks before.

“Tonight I’m here to tell you one thing: Iran lied.”

“Iran lied about never having a nuclear weapons program,” he said. “One hundred thousand secret files prove it did. Second, even after the deal, Iran continued to preserve and expand its nuclear weapons knowledge for future use.”

Although the presentation was live on Israeli television, Netanyahu made clear that his audience was abroad: he delivered most of his speech in English, before switching to Hebrew.

Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a news conference at the Ministry of Defence in Tel Aviv, Israel April 30, 2018. REUTERS/ Amir Cohen

Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a news conference at the Ministry of Defence in Tel Aviv, Israel April 30, 2018. REUTERS/ Amir Cohen

Netanyahu said he had already shared the new intelligence with the United States and would dispatch envoys to France and Germany to present it. He also spoke by phone to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Tehran has denied ever seeking nuclear weapons and accuses its arch-foe Israel of stirring up world suspicions against it.

However, much of what Netanyahu presented is unlikely to surprise world powers, which have long concluded that Iran was pursuing atomic weapons before the agreement was signed in 2015: that is why they imposed sanctions in the first place. The agreement lifted those sanctions in return for curbs on Iran’s nuclear work.

The French ambassador to Washington, Gerard Araud, tweeted that information about past Iranian nuclear activity was in fact an argument in favor of the nuclear deal, not against it.

Washington’s European allies say Tehran has generally abided by the terms of the deal since then, and have urged Trump not to scrap it. Some independent analysts and diplomats said Netanyahu appeared to be presenting old evidence.

Eran Etzion, former deputy Israeli national security adviser who now heads the Israeli-European think-tank Forum of Strategic Dialogue, said on Twitter: “No ‘smoking gun’ was revealed this evening, nor was it proven that Iran is today developing nuclear weaponry or violating the (nuclear deal) in any other way.”

A senior European diplomat told Reuters: “We knew all of this and what especially stands out is that Netanyahu doesn’t speak of any recorded violations” of the deal itself.

Speaking after Netanyahu’s presentation, Trump told a White House news conference the nuclear deal was “a horrible agreement for the United States”. He said it would let Tehran develop nuclear arms after seven years and had “proven right what Israel has done today” with Netanyahu’s disclosures.

However, Washington itself has concluded that Iran has not violated the deal’s terms. Two U.S. intelligence officials who have monitored Iran’s nuclear weapons program for years said nothing in Netanyahu’s remarks appeared to contradict that view.

“We have seen no new and credible evidence that Iran is violating the agreement, wither in the Prime Minister’s remarks today or from other sources,” said one of the officials, both of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Moments before Netanyahu spoke Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted: “The boy who can’t stop crying wolf is at it again”.

Abbas Araqchi, a senior Iranian foreign ministry official, was quoted by Iran’s Tasnim news agency as calling Netanyahu’s presentation “a childish and ridiculous game” with the goal of influencing Trump’s decision ahead of the May 12 deadline.

Israel is widely believed to be the only nuclear-armed state in the Middle East, though it neither confirms nor denies possessing atomic weapons.

(Reporting by Rami Amichay, Stephen Farrell, Ori Lewis, Ari Rabinovitch, Dan Williams, Arshad Mohammed, John Irish, John Walcott, Parisa Hafezi, Francois Murphy; Editing by Peter Graff)

Israel at 70: the drummer, the baker, the rescuer

Amin Alaev (R), 55 (R), Aviva Alaev (2nd R), 22, Allo Alaev (C), 85, Amanda Alaev (2nd L), 13, Ariel Alaev (L), 51, and Avraham Alaev, 7, pose for a photograph in their rehearsal studio in Rishon Lezion, Israel March 22, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Amir Cohen

TEL AVIV (Reuters) – The cantor’s grandson came from Tajikistan. The baker, who survived Auschwitz, came from Czechoslovakia. The emergency responder is a sixth-generation Jerusalemite. Together in one land, they celebrate Israel’s 70th anniversary on Wednesday evening.

Since 1948, Israel has been home to Jewish immigrants from around the world. And when they arrived in their new home, many stuck to what they knew, and who they knew, handing down family trades from generation to generation.

Dressed in a traditional Bukharan floral gown and embroidered cap, 85-year-old Allo Alaev plays the doyra – a central-Asian frame drum.

The Alaevs came to Israel from Tajikistan in 1991, one family among the 1 million Jews who have moved to Israel from the former Soviet Union since the fall of communism in 1990.

The master percussionist is accompanied by two sons and five of his grandchildren playing rhythmic, fast-tempo folk music on an accordion, violins and a darbuka drum.

“My father was a famous singer there, his father was a cantor and my mother was a famous doyra player. I learned how to play it from her,” said Allo, the family patriarch.

Israel’s cultural mix has been a boon. “It’s only made our music better,” said his son Ariel, 51. “Music has no borders.”

Amit Dagan (R), 55, Hadar Dagan-Abeles (2nd R), 28, Baruch Dagan (C), 45, Bat-Sehva Dagan (2nd L), 77, and Mordechai Dagan, 49, pose for a photograph with a picture of the family's late patriarch Yehezkel Dagan (1937-2016), at Hishtil Nursery in Nehalim, Israel March 20, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Amit Dagan (R), 55, Hadar Dagan-Abeles (2nd R), 28, Baruch Dagan (C), 45, Bat-Sehva Dagan (2nd L), 77, and Mordechai Dagan, 49, pose for a photograph with a picture of the family’s late patriarch Yehezkel Dagan (1937-2016), at Hishtil Nursery in Nehalim, Israel March 20, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

BREAD OF GENERATIONS

Keeping a family trade has provided a sense of stability for some Jewish immigrants who survived the Holocaust.

Jolanda Wilheim came to Israel in 1949, after she and her husband had been in the Nazi death camp, Auschwitz.

Their daughter, Myriam Zweigenbaum, said her father’s father had owned a bakery before the war, so when her parents moved to a new land where they had nothing else to fall back on, they drew on family knowledge to start their own bakery.

Wilheim, 96, still works in that small bakery in central Israel, with her daughter and two granddaughters.

“I feel I’m living out what it was that the Nazis had tried to cut down more than 70 years ago,” said Wilheim’s granddaughter, Keren Zweigenbaum, 38.

Despite the wars that Israel has fought with its Arab neighbors – and the still-unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict – Israel is seen by many Jewish immigrants as a safe haven in the Middle East.

The oldest Israelis remember the anti-Jewish sentiment that swept through the Middle East in the middle of the 20th century, fanned by Arab nationalism and anti-colonialism. The turmoil saw entire Jewish communities leave countries in which they had lived for centuries, even millennia.

That flight only accelerated after the establishment of Israel and the 1948 Israeli-Arab war, which fueled anger across the Arab world at the plight of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled or were driven from their homes during the conflict.

The fate of those Palestinians – the vast majority of whom have never been able to return – is inextricably linked with that of Israel. The events of 70 years ago that Israelis celebrate are cause for mourning among Palestinians, who commemorate them as the “Nakba” or “Catastrophe”.

CHARITY AND CARE

But not all Israelis are newcomers. David Weissenstern’s ancestors have been in Jerusalem for six generations. They were among the first families who moved out of the walled Old City in the 19th century, and built the first Jewish neighborhoods outside it.

Weissenstern, his son and grandson are part of Zaka, an Israeli emergency rescue and recover organization. Most of its volunteers, like him, are ultra-Orthodox Jews. Often first on the scene of car accidents and militant attacks, one of their tasks is to collect the body parts of victims, to ensure their proper burial.

“Treatment of the dead is one of the greatest Jewish edicts,” said Weissenstern, 71. His family, he said, has always kept communal Jewish edicts of charity and care for the other:

“If you make a dollar more or a dollar less, that’s less important. What matters is what you’ve given to others.”

By contrast, Aharon Ben Hur, 84, only came to Israel in 1951 from Iraq, once home to one of the most vibrant Jewish communities in the Middle East.

Ben Hur’s father and young brother were among 180 Baghdad Jews killed in 1941, in a pogrom known as the Farhud. He now runs two falafel restaurants in Tel Aviv, with his son and grandson.

“In Iraq, as a boy, my parents suffered,” he said. “When we came to Israel, it was another life.”

(Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Kevin Liffey)

Trump agrees to keep U.S. troops in Syria a ‘little longer,’ but wants out

A U.S. fighter stands near a military vehicle, north of Raqqa city, Syria November 6, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump agreed in a National Security Council meeting this week to keep U.S. troops in Syria a little longer to defeat Islamic State but wants them out relatively soon, a senior administration official said on Wednesday.

Trump did not approve a specific withdrawal timetable at Tuesday’s meeting, the official said. He wants to ensure Islamic State militants are defeated but wants other countries in the region and the United Nations to step up and help provide stability in Syria, the official said.

“We’re not going to immediately withdraw but neither is the president willing to back a long-term commitment,” the official said.

Trump had signaled his desire to get U.S. forces out of Syria in a speech last Thursday in Ohio, and officials said he had privately been pressing for an early withdrawal in talks with his national security aides.

Trump told a news conference on Tuesday with Baltic leaders that the United States was very successful against Islamic State but that “sometimes it’s time to come back home.”

His advisers have been urging him to maintain at least a small force in Syria to ensure the militants are defeated and to prevent Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s ally Iran from gaining an important foothold.

The United States is conducting air strikes in Syria and has deployed about 2,000 troops on the ground, including special operations forces whose advice has helped Kurdish militia and other U.S.-backed fighters capture territory from Islamic State, also known as ISIS.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders rejected concerns that a U.S. withdrawal from Syria might encourage deeper Iranian involvement in the country, saying U.S. allies and partners in the region could help with security.

“The purpose would be to … train local enforcement as well as have our allies and partners in the region who have a lot more at risk to put more skin into the game,” Sanders told a briefing. “Certainly that’s something that the president wants to see happen, for them to step up and for them to do more.”

Sanders did not say which regional partners might play a role in Syria, but Trump has said Saudi Arabia should pay more if it wants the United States to remain.

The White House said in a statement on Wednesday that the United States remained committed to eliminating ISIS in Syria, but it added that the U.S. military mission was “coming to a rapid end, with ISIS being almost completely destroyed.”

U.S. Army General Joseph Votel, who oversees U.S. troops in the Middle East as the head of Central Command, estimated on Tuesday that more than 90 percent of the group’s territory in Syria had been taken back since 2014.

In the National Security Council meeting, Trump made clear that he did not want to stay in Syria for a lengthy period. The senior official said the impression Trump left was that he would like to withdraw in a year or less.

“He’s not going to tolerate several years to a half decade,” the official said.

Brett McGurk, the U.S. special envoy for the global coalition against Islamic State, on Tuesday said: “We are in Syria to fight ISIS. That is our mission and our mission isn’t over and we are going to complete that mission.”

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Additional reporting by Jonathan Landay, Doina Chiacu and Phil Stewart; Editing by Alistair Bell and James Dalgleish)

Saudi-led air strike kills 12 civilians, including seven children: medics

Morgue workers sort plastic bags containing bodies of an airstrike victims in Hodeida, Yemen April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Abduljabbar Zeyad

HODEIDAH, Yemen (Reuters) – An air strike by the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen killed 12 civilians including seven children in the coastal city of Hodeidah on Monday, medics and a witness said.

Medics and a civilian who saw the wreckage said the air strike had destroyed a house in the al-Hali district, where displaced civilians from other provinces were settled.

The 12 victims were all from the same family, they said.

A spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition told Reuters: “We take this report very seriously and it will be fully investigated as all reports of this nature are – using an internationally approved, independent process. Whilst this is ongoing, it would be inappropriate to comment further.”

Hodeidah is home to the impoverished country’s biggest port from where most of the humanitarian aid reaches millions of civilians on the brink of famine. The operation of port, controlled by the Iran-aligned Houthis, was not affected by the air strike.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates intervened in a civil war in Yemen in 2015 against the Houthis to restore the internationally recognised government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

The alliance, which includes other Sunni Muslim states, has conducted thousands of air strikes targeting Houthi fighters and has often hit civilian areas, although it denies ever doing so intentionally.

The war has killed more than 10,000 people, displaced more than 2 million and driven the country – already the poorest on the Arabian Peninsula – to the verge of famine.

Last week the Houthis launched a flurry of missiles which Saudi Arabia said it had intercepted over Riyadh. Debris from the missiles fell on a home, killing one person.

Rights watchdog Human Rights Watch on Monday said the Houthi attack had violated the laws of war by indiscriminately targeting populated areas.

“The Houthis should immediately stop their indiscriminate missile attacks on populated areas of Saudi Arabia,” said Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson.

“But just as unlawful coalition airstrikes don’t justify the Houthis’ indiscriminate attacks, the Saudis can’t use Houthi rockets to justify impeding life-saving goods for Yemen’s civilian population.”

When the Houthis fired missiles at Riyadh last November, the coalition responded by shutting Yemen’s airports and ports. The United Nations said that blockade raised the danger of mass starvation, and it was partially lifted.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom; Editing by Alison Williams and Hugh Lawson)

Landmine clearing near Jordan River baptism site begins before Easter

By Eli Berlzon

QASR AL-YAHUD, West Bank (Reuters) – On the western bank of the River Jordan, not far from the spot where Christians believe Jesus was baptized, experts have begun clearing thousands of mines from the ruins of eight churches and surrounding land deserted more than 50 years ago.

Once the anti-tank mines and other explosives are removed, the compounds containing a Roman Catholic church and seven Eastern Orthodox churches abandoned after the 1967 Middle East war can be re-opened, said HALO Trust, a Scottish-based charity organizing the endeavor together with Israel.

The mined area, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, is about a kilometer (half-mile) from Qasr al-Yahud, the baptism site which HALO said was visited by around 570,000 Christian pilgrims last year.

A team of Israeli, Palestinian and Georgian experts, using hand-held mine detectors and armored mechanical diggers, began clearing the church compounds and the surrounding desert shrubland shortly before the Christian Holy Week that precedes Easter.

A sign warning from land mines is seen on a fence near Qasr Al-Yahud, a traditional baptism site along the Jordan River, near Jericho in the occupied West Bank, March 29, 2018

A sign warning from land mines is seen on a fence near Qasr Al-Yahud, a traditional baptism site along the Jordan River, near Jericho in the occupied West Bank, March 29, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Rusting barbed wire fences, with signs warning “Danger Mines!” in Hebrew, English and Arabic, run along a dusty road leading to the 100-hectare (27 acre) area. HALO says the land contains around 2,600 mines and an unknown number of other unexploded ordnance.

Some of the churches may be boobytrapped, the charity says.

In a safe zone at the riverside on Thursday, a family from Spain wearing white baptismal robes stepped into the water.

HALO has been raising funds for the project over several years and said in a statement it intends to complete work at the site by Christmas.

Israel’s Defence Ministry and its Israel National Mine Action Authority have contributed at least half the funding for the project, a ministry spokeswoman said.

HALO described the project as a rare example of multi-faith collaboration in the Middle East, involving Israel and the Palestinian Authority that administers limited self-rule in the West Bank, which welcomed the efforts.

The river area was once a war zone between Israel and Jordan. The two neighbors made peace in 1994 but it took many years before some mine clearing began.

Both claim that the site where John the Baptist and Jesus met is on their side of the biblical river. The Gospel of John refers to “Bethany beyond the Jordan” without further details.

In 2002, Jordan opened its site, showing remains of ancient churches and writings of pilgrims down the centuries to bolster its claim. UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site in 2015.

A sapper belonging to the HALO Trust, an international landmine clearance charity, looks for old mines in an abandoned church property complex near Qasr Al-Yahud, a traditional baptism site along the Jordan River, near Jericho in the occupied West Bank, March 29, 2018.

A sapper belonging to the HALO Trust, an international landmine clearance charity, looks for old mines in an abandoned church property complex near Qasr Al-Yahud, a traditional baptism site along the Jordan River, near Jericho in the occupied West Bank, March 29, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Israel opened the baptism area on the western bank of the river in 2011. It has a modern visitor center and stairs for pilgrims to descend into the muddy water.

HALO, which has cleared landmines all over the world and was once sponsored by the late Princess Diana, said on Thursday that three of their staff members were killed and two injured by the accidental detonation of an anti-tank mine in Nagorno Karabakh.

The group were in a vehicle conducting a minefield survey when the explosion occurred in the separatist region in Azerbaijan.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)