Ten die of MERS in Saudi Arabia among 32 cases in last three months: WHO

The headquarters of the World Health Organization are pictured in Geneva

By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) – Ten people have died among 32 infected with Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in Saudi Arabia since June in a series of clusters of the viral disease, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Wednesday.

The latest cases, recorded between June 1 and September 16, bring the global total of laboratory-confirmed MERS cases to 2,254, with 800 deaths, the United Nations agency said in a “disease outbreak” statement on its website.

MERS first emerged in humans in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and has since spread to cause outbreaks in dozens of countries around the world. The vast majority of the cases – around 1,800 of them – have been in Saudi Arabia.

The virus MERS can cause severe respiratory disease in people and kills one in three of those it infects. It is thought to be carried by camels and comes from the same family as the coronavirus that caused China’s deadly Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003.

Most of the known human-to-human transmission of the disease has occurred in healthcare settings, and the WHO has warned hospitals and medical workers to take stringent precautions to stop the disease from spreading.

The WHO said these latest cases did not change its overall assessment that the virus poses a risk of spreading both within and beyond the Middle East.

“WHO expects that additional cases … will be reported from the Middle East, and that cases will continue to be exported to other countries,” its statement said.

The disease spread into South Korea in 2015 and killed 38 people in a major outbreak. And in its first case in three years, South Korea said last month that a 61-year-old man had been diagnosed with MERS.

Among the 32 latest Saudi cases, 12 were part of “five distinct clusters”, the WHO said. Four of these were within households or families, and the fifth was in a hospital in Buraidah, a city in Qassim Province north of the capital Riyadh.

(Reporting by Kate Kelland, Editing by William Maclean)

Exclusive: Iran moves missiles to Iraq in warning to enemies

FILE PHOTO: A display featuring missiles and a portrait of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is seen at Baharestan Square in Tehran, Iran September 27, 2017. Nazanin Tabatabaee Yazdi/TIMA via REUTERS

By John Irish and Ahmed Rasheed

PARIS/BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iran has given ballistic missiles to Shi’ite proxies in Iraq and is developing the capacity to build more there to deter attacks on its interests in the Middle East and to give it the means to hit regional foes, Iranian, Iraqi and Western sources said.

Any sign that Iran is preparing a more aggressive missile policy in Iraq will exacerbate tensions between Tehran and Washington, already heightened by U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of a 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

It would also embarrass France, Germany and the United Kingdom, the three European signatories to the nuclear deal, as they have been trying to salvage the agreement despite new U.S. sanctions against Tehran.

According to three Iranian officials, two Iraqi intelligence sources and two Western intelligence sources, Iran has transferred short-range ballistic missiles to allies in Iraq over the last few months. Five of the officials said it was helping those groups to start making their own.

“The logic was to have a backup plan if Iran was attacked,” one senior Iranian official told Reuters. “The number of missiles is not high, just a couple of dozen, but it can be increased if necessary.”

Iran has previously said its ballistic missile activities are purely defensive in nature. Iranian officials declined to comment when asked about the latest moves.

The Iraqi government and military both declined to comment.

The Zelzal, Fateh-110 and Zolfaqar missiles in question have ranges of about 200 km to 700 km, putting Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh or the Israeli city of Tel Aviv within striking distance if the weapons were deployed in southern or western Iraq.

The Quds Force, the overseas arm of Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), has bases in both those areas. Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani is overseeing the program, three of the sources said.

Western countries have already accused Iran of transferring missiles and technology to Syria and other allies of Tehran, such as Houthi rebels in Yemen and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

Iran’s Sunni Muslim Gulf neighbors and its arch-enemy Israel have expressed concerns about Tehran’s regional activities, seeing it as a threat to their security.

Israeli officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the missile transfers.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday that anybody that threatened to wipe Israel out “would put themselves in a similar danger”.

MISSILE PRODUCTION LINE

The Western source said the number of missiles was in the 10s and that the transfers were designed to send a warning to the United States and Israel, especially after air raids on Iranian troops in Syria. The United States has a significant military presence in Iraq.

“It seems Iran has been turning Iraq into its forward missile base,” the Western source said.

The Iranian sources and one Iraqi intelligence source said a decision was made some 18 months ago to use militias to produce missiles in Iraq, but activity had ramped up in the last few months, including with the arrival of missile launchers.

“We have bases like that in many places and Iraq is one of them. If America attacks us, our friends will attack America’s interests and its allies in the region,” said a senior IRGC commander who served during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

The Western source and the Iraqi source said the factories being used to develop missiles in Iraq were in al-Zafaraniya, east of Baghdad, and Jurf al-Sakhar, north of Kerbala. One Iranian source said there was also a factory in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The areas are controlled by Shi’ite militias, including Kata’ib Hezbollah, one of the closest to Iran. Three sources said Iraqis had been trained in Iran as missile operators.

The Iraqi intelligence source said the al-Zafaraniya factory produced warheads and the ceramic of missile molds under former President Saddam Hussein. It was reactivated by local Shi’ite groups in 2016 with Iranian assistance, the source said.

A team of Shi’ite engineers who used to work at the facility under Saddam were brought in, after being screened, to make it operational, the source said. He also said missiles had been tested near Jurf al-Sakhar.

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon declined to comment.

One U.S official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that Tehran over the last few months has transferred missiles to groups in Iraq but could not confirm that those missiles had any launch capability from their current positions.

Washington has been pushing its allies to adopt a tough anti-Iran policy since it reimposed sanctions this month.

While the European signatories to the nuclear deal have so far balked at U.S. pressure, they have grown increasingly impatient over Iran’s ballistic missile program.

France, in particular, has bemoaned Iranian “frenzy” in developing and propagating missiles and wants Tehran to open negotiations over its ballistic weapons.

Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Thursday that Iran was arming regional allies with rockets and allowing ballistic proliferation. “Iran needs to avoid the temptation to be the (regional) hegemon,” he said.

In March, the three nations proposed fresh EU sanctions on Iran over its missile activity, although they failed to push them through after opposition from some member states.

“Such a proliferation of Iranian missile capabilities throughout the region is an additional and serious source of concern,” a document from the three European countries said at the time.

MESSAGE TO FOES

A regional intelligence source also said Iran was storing a number of ballistic missiles in areas of Iraq that were under effective Shi’ite control and had the capacity to launch them.

The source could not confirm that Iran has a missile production capacity in Iraq.

A second Iraqi intelligence official said Baghdad had been aware of the flow of Iranian missiles to Shi’ite militias to help fight Islamic State militants, but that shipments had continued after the hardline Sunni militant group was defeated.

“It was clear to Iraqi intelligence that such a missile arsenal sent by Iran was not meant to fight Daesh (Islamic State) militants but as a pressure card Iran can use once involved in regional conflict,” the official said.

The Iraqi source said it was difficult for the Iraqi government to stop or persuade the groups to go against Tehran.

“We can’t restrain militias from firing Iranian rockets because simply the firing button is not in our hands, it’s with Iranians who control the push button,” he said.

“Iran will definitely use the missiles it handed over to Iraqi militia it supports to send a strong message to its foes in the region and the United States that it has the ability to use Iraqi territories as a launch pad for its missiles to strike anywhere and anytime it decides,” the Iraqi official said.

Iraq’s parliament passed a law in 2016 to bring an assortment of Shi’ite militia groups known collectively as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) into the state apparatus. The militias report to Iraq’s prime minister, who is a Shi’ite under the country’s unofficial governance system.

However, Iran still has a clear hand in coordinating the PMF leadership, which frequently meets and consults with Soleimani.

(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart and Jonathan Landay in Washington; editing by David Clarke)

Russia says sees signs U.S. preparing for possible strike on Syria: agencies

FILE PHOTO: Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad hold a checkpoint in Aleppo, Syria February 10, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki/File Photo

MOSCOW (Reuters) – The Russian Ministry of Defence said on Monday it had noticed Washington was building up its military forces in the Middle East in preparation for what Moscow feared was a possible strike on Syrian government forces, Russian news agencies reported.

Major-General Igor Konashenkov was quoted by agencies as saying that the USS Ross, a guided-missile destroyer, had entered the Mediterranean on Aug. 25 armed with 28 Tomahawk cruise missiles capable of hitting any target in Syria.

(Reporting by Polina Ivanova; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

Palestinians and Israelis remember life under British rule

Illegal Jewish immigrants from Europe are seen on the ship "Exodus" in Haifa port in this March 22, 1947 file photo released by the Israeli Government Press Office (GPO) and obtained by Reuters on June 18, 2018. GPO/Frank Shershel/Handout via REUTERS

By Maayan Lubell and Rinat Harash

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prince William’s tour of Israel and the Palestinian Territories is the first official visit by a member of the royal family, but the Holy Land is familiar ground to the British state.

An older generation of Israelis and Palestinians can still remember British soldiers patrolling the streets of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Ramallah during the three decades that Britain controlled the territory.

British troops captured Jerusalem from the Ottoman Empire in 1917, and in 1922 the League of Nations awarded Britain an international mandate to administer Palestine during the post-war deal-making that redrew the map of the Middle East.

The award of the mandate also endorsed the 1917 Balfour Declaration, in which Britain expressed support for “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine.

In 1948, exhausted by World War Two and the strain of holding warring Jewish and Arab forces apart, the British withdrew.

Seventy years later, Israelis and Palestinians who lived through the era remember it very differently.

‘I DO NOT UNDERSTAND IT’

Under the British, the early Zionist movement was able to lay the groundwork for what would become modern Israel. Its parliament, laws and military bear traces of British influence, as do many buildings and street names.

But Israelis also remember how Britain restricted the number of Jews fleeing to Palestine from Nazi-controlled Europe. Tens of thousands who tried to enter illegally by sea were taken to detention camps in Cyprus and Palestine.

Illegal Jewish immigrants from Europe are seen on the ship "Exodus" in Haifa port in this July 18, 1947 file photo released by the Israeli Government Press Office (GPO) and obtained by Reuters on June 18, 2018. GPO/Hans Pinn/Handout via REUTERS

Illegal Jewish immigrants from Europe are seen on the ship “Exodus” in Haifa port in this July 18, 1947 file photo released by the Israeli Government Press Office (GPO) and obtained by Reuters on June 18, 2018. GPO/Hans Pinn/Handout via REUTERS

“We loved the British, but their policy, when it was against us, sparked anger and rage that are understandable,” said Shlomo Hillel, 95, a former Israeli diplomat and minister.

Hillel’s late wife, Suzanna, fled Austria when the Nazis annexed it in 1938. After a year at sea she was taken with her family to a British detention camp in Palestine, where they were held for another year.

“Until this day, I do not understand it,” Hillel said.

WARM BEER

Hillel went on to operate a secret underground munitions factory beneath a kibbutz near Tel Aviv that had been set up as a cover for their clandestine bullet-making operations.

British soldiers would occasionally drop by at the kibbutz for routine visits. He hosted them with beer and sandwiches, but to avoid future surprise visits he served them undrinkably warm beer one summer day, telling them that if they gave him advance notice, “I can prepare the beer and keep it in the fridge.” After that, he always knew when the British were coming.

MIXED FEELINGS

Ram Haviv, 93, a retired Israeli senior civil servant, served in the British Army in Iraq, Egypt and Iran in World War Two.

“The relationship wasn’t too favorable on the part of the British government of that time. But we’d rather now remember the positive aspects for which we are just the same thankful,” he said.

“After the Second World War, the state of Israel was founded on the cornerstones of the British rule in Palestine.”

FILE PHOTO: A general view of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, June 21, 2018. REUTERS/Ammar Awad/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A general view of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, June 21, 2018. REUTERS/Ammar Awad/File Photo

KING DAVID HOTEL

The King David Hotel, where Prince William will stay in Jerusalem, was built in the 1930s by Ezra Mosseri, a wealthy Egyptian Jewish banker.

Used by the British in the mandate era as a headquarters, in July 1946 it was bombed by the Irgun, an underground Jewish paramilitary force, killing more than 90 people.

FILE PHOTO: Rescue workers are seen at the site of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem which has served as the British headquarters, and was bombed by Jewish Irgun paramilitary group killing more than 90 people, in this July 22, 1946 file photo released by the Israeli Government Press Office (GPO) and obtained by Reuters on June 18, 2018. GPO/Hugo Mendelson/Handout via REUTERS/File Pho

FILE PHOTO: Rescue workers are seen at the site of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem which has served as the British headquarters, and was bombed by Jewish Irgun paramilitary group killing more than 90 people, in this July 22, 1946 file photo released by the Israeli Government Press Office (GPO) and obtained by Reuters on June 18, 2018. GPO/Hugo Mendelson/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

Mohammad Jadallah, 97, still remembers that day, when he had just turned up for his job as a waiter. The explosion “cut the room in half,” he recalls. “There was a state of panic. People were running in the dining room and in other places in the hotel.”

Less than two years later, Jadallah was no longer serving the British at tables – he was fighting on the Arab side in the war that broke out as the British era limped to a close.

‘BRITAIN GAVE OUR LAND TO THE JEWS’

Sitting under an apple tree in Dar Jarir village in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Abdel-Fattah Shijaiyah mostly remembers the British as an unwelcome military presence who imprisoned his father and issued a death warrant on his brother for their involvement in an Arab uprising in the 1930s.

Shijaiyah, 96, had joined the police under the British “because of the state of poverty: there was no money and my father was in jail”.

His brother was never caught and was later pardoned. Shijaiyah himself later took up arms in the 1940s, as Arab feelings hardened against the British and the growing numbers of Jewish immigrants.

“We are convinced Britain gave our land to the Jews,” he said.

FOR THE TIME BEING

In dusty archives in Gaza, old British land records are still in use. The yellowing pages are stamped with the mandate-era name “Palestine Government”. The listed proprietor for some districts is recorded as “the High Commissioner, for the time being, in trust for the Government of Palestine”.

In Khan Younis refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, Ahmed Jarghoun, 75, displayed a document for a piece of land that, he says, his father bought and registered with the British authorities in 1944. The land lies on the other side of the Gaza-Israel border, in what is now the Israeli city of Lod.

“I want my land back,” he said. “We, as Palestinians, want our country back. Balfour gave what he did not own to those who were undeserving.”

(Reporting by Rinat Harash, Mustafa Abu-Ganeyeh, Nidal al-Mughrabi, Ali Sawafta, Ori Lewis and Maayan Lubell; Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Andrew Roche)

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)