Britain will support U.S. in Iran talks if deal can be made: UK defense minister

FILE PHOTO: Britain's Defence Secretary Ben Wallace walks outside Downing Street in London, Britain, September 2, 2019. REUTERS/Simon Dawson

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain will always help the United States along a path to talks with Iran if a deal can be made, British defense minister Ben Wallace said on Friday, although he cautioned that Iran should be judged by its actions rather than words.

“Actions speak louder than words, so I think we’ll take them (Iran) at their actions rather than their words,” Wallace said at a news conference in London with his U.S. counterpart Mark Esper, who earlier said Iran was “inching” towards a place where talks could be held.

“But if there is a deal to be made, we will of course always help the United States along that path, because I think peace and stability in that region is the most important thing,” Wallace added.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali, writing by Alistair Smout; editing by Stephen Addison)

Netanyahu: Israel ready for any scenario after Hezbollah clash

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on as he arrives to review an honor guard with his Ethiopian counterpart Abiy Ahmed during their meeting in Jerusalem September 1, 2019. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

By Ari Rabinovitch and Ellen Francis

JERUSALEM/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that Israel was prepared for any scenario after a cross-border clash with Lebanon’s Hezbollah, but neither side seemed eager for another conflict.

Israel’s military said anti-tank missiles from Lebanon targeted an army base and vehicles. It responded with fire into southern Lebanon, after a week of growing tension raised fears of a new war with long-time enemy Hezbollah.

The Iran-backed Hezbollah movement said its fighters destroyed an Israeli military vehicle, killing and wounding those inside. Israel said there were no casualties.

Netanyahu, whose re-election campaign ahead of a poll less than three weeks away could have been complicated by war in the north, signaled business as usual after the hostilities erupted along the frontier with Lebanon.

The Israeli leader kept to his regular schedule, commenting on the security situation, in Hebrew only, at the start of a meeting with Honduras’ visiting president, and did not take questions from reporters.

“We were attacked by a few anti-tank missiles. We responded with 100 shells, aerial fire and various measures. We are in consultations about what’s to come,” Netanyahu said.

“I have given instructions to be prepared for any scenario, and we will decide on what’s next depending on how things develop,” he said, almost dismissively, in a departure from his usually much tougher language toward Israel’s enemies.

“I can make an important announcement – we have no casualties, no wounded, not even a scratch.”

The U.N. peacekeeping force on the frontier said calm had returned to the region at night. The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) also said it had urged both sides to “exercise utmost restraint to prevent any further escalation.”

The two sides fought a month-long war in 2006 after Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid.

Israel has been on alert for a confrontation with Hezbollah for the past week after two drones crashed in Beirut’s southern suburbs, with one of them exploding. Security officials in the region have described the target as linked to precision-guided missile projects.

Any new war between Israel and Hezbollah would raise the risk of a wider conflict in the Middle East, where Iran has defied U.S. attempts to force it to renegotiate a 2015 nuclear deal it reached with world powers.

At the same time, Israel is alarmed by Tehran’s growing influence in the region through militia allies such as Hezbollah in countries such as Syria.

In Iraq, powerful Iranian-backed militias have blamed a series of recent blasts at their weapons depots on Israel and the United States.

Hezbollah said the operation on Sunday was carried out by a unit named after two of its fighters who were killed by an Israeli airstrike inside Syria last week.

An Iranian security official was cited as saying the Hezbollah attack on Sunday was “a reciprocal measure”.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said on Saturday night that field commanders were ready to respond to last week’s drone attack, which he blamed on Israel. But like Netanyahu, Nasrallah has not indicated Hezbollah was seeking full-scale war.

Amid the threats, Israel had moved extra forces into the border region, which was largely quiet since the 2006 war.

Without claiming responsibility for the Beirut drone attack, the Israeli military has published what it said were details about an extensive Iranian-sponsored campaign to provide Hezbollah with the means to produce precision-guided missiles.

Such missiles could potentially pose a counter-balance to Israel’s overwhelming military force in any future war, with the capacity to home in on and knock out core infrastructure sites.

Nasrallah says Hezbollah has enough of the missiles, dismissing claims that it has factories to produce the weapons.

(Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Jane Merriman and Mark Potter)

Plane used to carry U.S. troops catches fire at Irish airport

Emergency vehicles respond after an Omni Air International Boeing 767-300 (not pictured) caught fire at Shannon Airport, Ireland August 15, 2019 in this image obtained from social media. Charles Pereira via REUTERS

DUBLIN (Reuters) – A plane that regularly carries U.S. troops through Ireland’s Shannon Airport caught fire shortly before it was due to take off on Thursday, forcing a five-hour suspension of flights at Shannon and cancellation of some trips.

Shannon Airport temporarily suspended operations at 0537 GMT after the incident involving an Omni Air International Boeing 767-300 due to depart for the Middle East. All 145 passengers and 14 crew disembarked after emergency services were called.

Air traffic controllers noticed a fire and smoke coming from the aircraft as it taxied along the runway after having to abort its take-off for technical reasons, according to Niall Maloney, operations director at Shannon Airport.

“The problem with an aborted take-off is you can probably get things like hot brakes and when the aircraft went around again to come back on the apron, a flame was spotted,” Maloney told Irish national broadcaster RTE.

Omni Air International is a civilian airline that says it transports U.S. and foreign military troops and military family members around the world.

In a Twitter post, Omni Air said it was participating in an investigation of the incident after the aircraft “rejected take-off” and was safely evacuated. Initial reports indicated no serious injuries to passengers or crew, it added.

Ireland provides landing and refueling facilities to the U.S. military at Shannon, the country’s second busiest airport, particularly for transatlantic flights.

An average of around 300 U.S. troops passed through Shannon Airport each day in the first three months of the year, according to Ireland’s Transport Ministry.

The incident forced the cancellation of 10 flights including eight to and from Britain operated by IAG’s Aer Lingus, and an American Airlines aircraft that was due to arrive from Philadelphia before it returned to the U.S. city.

The airport reopened just before 1030 GMT.

(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Iran says it arrests CIA spies, Gulf tensions simmer

FILE PHOTO - The Iranian flag flutters in front the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) headquarters in Vienna, Austria July 10, 2019. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner

By Michael Georgy

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran announced on Monday it had captured 17 spies working for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and sentenced some of them to death, deepening a crisis between the Islamic Republic and the West.

Iranian state television published images that it said showed the CIA officers who had been in touch with the suspected spies.

In a statement read on state television, the Ministry of Intelligence said 17 spies had been arrested in the 12 months to March 2019. Some have been sentenced to death, according to another report.

Such announcements are not unusual in Iran, and are often made for domestic consumption. But the timing suggests Tehran could harden its position in a standoff with Western powers which has raised fears of a direct military confrontation.

In recent weeks the United States has blamed Iran for attacks on shipping near the Strait of Hormuz, the global oil trade’s most important waterway, accusations Iran has denied.

The United States and Iran have downed drones operated by the other side and on Friday, Iran captured a British-registered tanker, the Stena Impero, in the Strait of Hormuz. Tehran had previously warned it would respond to Britain’s seizure of an Iranian tanker off Gibraltar on July 4.

There was no immediate comment on the Iranian allegations by the CIA or U.S. officials.

Iran announced in June that it had broken up an alleged CIA spy ring but it was unclear whether Monday’s announcement was linked to the same case.

BRITAIN’S NEXT MOVE

Prime Minister Theresa May’s office has said she would chair a meeting of Britain’s COBR emergency response committee early on Monday to discuss the tanker crisis and the government was expected to announce its next steps in parliament.

As Britain weighed its next move a recording emerged showing the Iranian military defied a British warship when it boarded and seized the Stena Impero, underscoring the challenges Britain faces responding.

Experts on the region say there are few obvious steps London can take at a time when the United States has already imposed the maximum possible economic sanctions, banning all Iranian oil exports worldwide.

Washington imposed the sanctions after President Donald Trump pulled out of a deal signed by his predecessor Barack Obama, which had provided Iran access to world trade in return for curbs on its nuclear program.

European countries including Britain have been caught in the middle. They disagreed with the U.S. decision to quit the nuclear deal but have so far failed to offer Iran another way to receive the deal’s promised economic benefits.

In Tokyo, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Monday that Japan wants to make every effort to reduce tension between the United States and Iran before responding to an expected U.S. request to send its navy to safeguard strategic waters off Iran.

Japanese media have said Washington’s proposal to boost surveillance of vital Middle East oil shipping lanes off Iran and Yemen could be on the agenda during a visit to Tokyo this week by U.S. national security adviser John Bolton.

“We have a long tradition of friendship with Iran and I’ve met with its president any number of times, as well as other leaders,” Abe told a news conference after his coalition’s victory in a Sunday election for parliament’s upper house.

“Before we make any decisions on what to do, Japan would like to make every effort to reduce tensions between Iran and the United States.”

The United States is struggling to win its allies’ support for an initiative to heighten surveillance of vital Middle East oil shipping lanes because of fears it will increase tension with Iran, six sources familiar with the matter said.

(Reporting by Gulf bureau and Elaine Lies and Linda Sieg in Tokyo; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Jon Boyle)

U.S. general says will work ‘aggressively’ to enable free passage in the Gulf

Saudi-led coalition officials show to U.S. Central Command chief General Kenneth McKenzie an exibit of weapons and missiles that is used by Houthi attacks against Saudi Arabia, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, July 18, 2019. REUTERS/Marwa Rashad

RIYADH (Reuters) – U.S. Central Command chief General Kenneth McKenzie said on Thursday it was talking to other countries about freedom of navigation in the Gulf and would work “aggressively” to find a solution to enable free passage.

The United States has beefed up its military presence in the Middle East over a perceived Iranian threat and is asking allies to help protect strategic waters off Iran and Yemen, following attacks on oil tankers in Gulf waters in recent months.

“We are currently talking with the international community about the right to freedom of navigation in the Middle East that will include passage to the Strait of Hormuz and passage to the Bab al Mandeb,” Mckenzie said.

Mckenzie made his comments before Iranian state TV broadcast a report that Iran had seized a foreign tanker smuggling fuel in the Gulf.

The U.S. general was talking to reporters in Riyadh at a joint news conference with General Prince Fahd bin Turki, commander of the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Iran-aligned Houthis in Yemen.

Asked if Saudi Arabia would have a role in a proposed international maritime security coalition, Prince Fahd said the coalition would continue to escort ships in the Red Sea.

“We have been doing that for the past few years and we have achieved great success in spite of some damage to civilian shipping,” Prince Fahd said. “So we’ve been active in this field, we are practicing this at the Red Sea at Bab al Mandeb.”

Earlier this month the Western-backed Sunni Muslim coalition led by Saudi Arabia said its naval forces foiled an attack on an unidentified commercial ship in the southern Red Sea by Houthi forces, which the group denied.

Washington and Riyadh have publicly blamed Iran and its proxies for the recent tanker attacks, a charge Tehran denies.

“We don’t believe war with Iran is inevitable and we don’t seek a war with Iran, what we seek is to deter Iran from the destabilizing and malign activities across the region,” McKenzie said.

The Houthis have stepped up missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia, recently targeting oil installations and airports in cities near the border with Yemen, fuelling tensions.

Saudi officials took McKenzie on a tour of an exhibit displaying missiles and drones Riyadh says were produced by Iran and used in the Houthi attacks. Tehran denies supplying the group with arms and the Houthis say they manufacture their own.

(Reporting By Marwa Rashad, writing by Aziz El Yaakoubi)

From Iraq to Yemen, drones raise U.S. alarm over Iranian plans

FILE PHOTO: A projectile and a drone launched at Saudi Arabia by Yemen'S Houthis are displayed at a Saudi military base, Al-Kharj, Saudi Arabia June 21, 2019. REUTERS/Stephen Kalin

By Babak Dehghanpisheh and Phil Stewart

GENEVA/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The increased use of drones by Iran and its allies for surveillance and attacks across the Middle East is raising alarms in Washington.

The United States believes that Iran-linked militia in Iraq have recently increased their surveillance of American troops and bases in the country by using off-the-shelf, commercially available drones, U.S. officials say.

The disclosure comes at a time of heightened tensions with Iran and underscores the many ways in which Tehran and the forces it backs are increasingly relying on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in places like Yemen, Syria, the Strait of Hormuz and Iraq.

Beyond surveillance, Iranian drones can drop munitions and even carry out “a kamikaze flight where they load it up with explosives and fly it into something”, according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthis have significantly increased their UAV attacks in recent months, bombing airports and oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, a main rival of Iran.

Last month, Iran came close to war with the United States after the Islamic Republic’s unprecedented shoot-down of a U.S. drone with a surface-to-air missile, a move that nearly triggered retaliatory strikes by U.S. President Donald Trump.

Trump withdrew from a major 2015 nuclear deal last year and reimposed sanctions to cut off Iran’s oil exports and pressure the Islamic Republic to negotiate over its ballistic missile program and regional policy.

The increased use of drones by Iran or its regional allies is a strategy aimed at pushing back and defending against pressure from the United States and foes like Saudi Arabia and Israel, current and former security officials and analysts say.

Iran now flies two or three drones over Gulf waters every day, the first U.S. official estimated, making it a core part of Tehran’s effort to monitor the Strait of Hormuz, through which one-fifth of the world’s oil consumption flow.

The United States and Saudi Arabia have accused Iran of carrying out attacks against six oil tankers near the Strait in the past two months, a claim Tehran has denied.

The U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, declined to quantify the extent to which surveillance near U.S. forces has increased in Iraq or to specify which militia were carrying it out.

“We have seen an uptick in drone activity in Iraq near our bases and facilities,” the first official said. “Certainly the drones that we have seen are more of the commercial off-the-shelf variant. So they’re obviously a deniable type UAV-activity in Iraq.”

A second official said the recent increase in surveillance was worrying but acknowledged Iran-linked militia in Iraq had a history of keeping tabs on Americans.

Reuters has previously reported that the United States has indirectly sent warnings to Iran, saying any attack against U.S. forces by proxy organizations in Iraq will be viewed by Washington as an attack by Iran itself.

In recent weeks, mortars and rockets have been fired at bases in Iraq where U.S. forces are located but no American troops have been injured. U.S. officials did not link those attacks to the increased surveillance.

Attempts to reach the Iranian ministry of foreign affairs and the Revolutionary Guards, who are most closely linked to militant groups in Iraq, for comment were unsuccessful.

Iraqi militia groups linked to Iran began using drones in 2014 and 2015 in battles to retake territory from Islamic State, according to militia members and Iraqi security officials.

These groups received training on the use of drones from members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and Lebanon’s Iranian-backed Hezbollah, two Iraqi security officials with knowledge of militia activities said.

“Key militia groups have the ability to launch aerial attacks using drones. Will they target American interests? That hasn’t happened yet,” said one Iraqi security official. “They used Katyusha [rockets] and mortars in very restricted attacks against American interests in Iraq to send a message rather than trying to inflict damage. Using explosive-laden drones is very possible once we have a worsening situation between Tehran and Washington.”

HOW SOPHISTICATED ARE IRAN’S DRONES?

In March, Iran boasted about a complex military exercise involving 50 drones. In a slickly edited video aired on state TV, waves of drones streak across a clear blue sky, bombing buildings on an island in the Gulf.

The show of force was intended to highlight Iran’s locally developed UAV program, which it has been building up for several years.

Douglas Barrie, a senior fellow at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, however, cautioned that some of Iran’s claims were “best viewed through the prism of domestic messaging”. “That Iran has a growing capability in UAVs isn’t debatable. What is an open question is the actual levels of technology it often employs,” Barrie said, adding that Israel had the most advanced program in the region.

American technology may have been used to enhance the Iranian drone program: an advanced U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel reconnaissance drone went down in eastern Iran in 2011, and Revolutionary Guards commanders say they were able to reverse engineer it, a claim which some security officials and analysts dispute.

“They’ve really come up with some aircraft which are looking increasingly sophisticated in terms of their ability to carry guided weapons and carry out long-range surveillance missions,” said Jeremy Binnie, Middle East and Africa editor for Jane’s Defense Weekly.

U.S. forces have shot down Iranian-made drones in 2017 in Syria, after deeming them a threat to both U.S.-backed forces and their advisers.

EXPORTING DRONE TECHNOLOGY

Iran has passed on its drones and technical expertise to regional allies, current and former security officials and analysts say.

The Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah advise the Houthis on the use of drones and operate video uplinks from Tehran and Beirut to beam in technical expertise when needed, an official from the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen said.

Iran has denied any role in the conflict in Yemen.

U.N. experts say the Houthis now have drones that can drop bigger bombs further away and more accurately than before. In May, drones hit two oil pumping stations hundreds of kilometers inside Saudi territory.

“Either the drones that attacked the pipelines were launched from inside Saudi territory or the Houthis just significantly upped their capability with satellite technology and were provided with the capability to extend the distance,” said Brett Velicovich, a drone expert and U.S. Army veteran, about the May attack.

A commander of Kataib Hezbollah, an Iraqi militia closely linked to Iran, using the nickname Abu Abdullah, told Reuters in 2014 that Iran had provided training for operating drones, which were mostly used to target Islamic State positions.

He said at the time that they had also used the drones to carry out surveillance on American military positions in Iraq and in the conflict in Syria, where Kataib Hezbollah fought in support of President Bashar al-Assad. 

Iraqi militia groups have now acquired enough expertise to modify drones for attacks, two Iraqi security officials with knowledge of the militia activities said.

(Reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh and Phil Stewart; Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad, Tuqa Khalid in Dubai, Stephen Kalin in Riyadh and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; editing by Giles Elgood)

Oil steadies as U.S. supply concerns ease but Iran tensions loom

FILE PHOTO: Oil pumps are seen after sunset outside Vaudoy-en-Brie, near Paris, France November 14, 2018. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

By Bozorgmehr Sharafedin

LONDON (Reuters) – Oil prices steadied on Tuesday as a resumption of production in the Gulf of Mexico after Hurricane Barry and a boom in U.S. supply from shale oil countered tensions in the Middle East.

Uncertainty about China’s economic prospects also pressured prices after data on Monday showed that growth in the country slowed to 6.2% from a year earlier, the weakest pace in at least 27 years.

Brent crude futures <LCOc1> were up 9 cents at $66.57 a barrel by 1333 GMT. The international benchmark hit a session high of $66.84 earlier in the day.

West Texas Intermediate crude futures <CLc1> rose by 13 cents to $59.71 a barrel. The U.S. benchmark hit a session high of $60.02 earlier.

U.S. oil companies on Monday began restoring some of the nearly 74% of production that was shut at platforms in the Gulf of Mexico because of Hurricane Barry.

“Crude oil is having a quiet day today after giving back some of last week’s gains,” Saxo Bank commodity strategist Ole Hansen said.

“U.S. output from the Gulf looks set to increase and … Barry failed to hit refinery assets along the coast.”

Workers were returning to the more than 280 production platforms that had been evacuated. It can take several days for full production to resume.

“You could almost hear the big sigh of relief from oil producers and refiners in the region as the storm passed without causing significant damage,” PVM analyst Tamas Varga said.

The storm will probably result in a noticeable decline in U.S. crude oil stocks this week, analysts at Commerzbank said.

Inventory data will be published by the American Petroleum Institute on Tuesday evening, and by the U.S. Department of Energy on Wednesday.

The market was also weighed down by signs of further increases in output from the United States, which has ridden a wave of shale oil production to become the world’s biggest crude producer, ahead of Russia and Saudi Arabia.

U.S. oil output from seven major shale formations is expected to rise by about 49,000 barrels per day in August, to a record 8.55 million bpd, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said.

Market activity has started to slow as it tends to in July and August, the peak European and U.S. holiday season, Hansen said.

Tension between the United States and Iran over Tehran’s nuclear program kept the market on edge given the potential for a price spike should the situation deteriorate.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Tuesday Tehran would respond to Britain’s “piracy” over the seizure of its oil tanker in Gibraltar.

“The Iranian tension … still makes any oil bear careful,” Varga said.

(Additional reporting by Aaron Sheldrick in Tokyo; Editing by Dale Hudson/Kirsten Donovan)

Netanyahu warns Iran it is within range of Israeli air strikes, citing Iranian threats

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures during the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem July 7, 2019. Abir Sultan/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cautioned Iran on Tuesday that it is within range of Israeli airstrikes, citing what he described as Iranian threats to destroy Israel.

“Iran recently has been threatening Israel’s destruction,” Netanyahu said at an Israeli air force base, where he viewed a squadron of advanced U.S.-built F-35 warplanes.

“It should remember that these planes can reach anywhere in the Middle East, including Iran, and certainly Syria,” he said in a YouTube video clip filmed at the base, with an F-35 in the background.

Last week, a senior Iranian parliamentarian was quoted by the semi-official Mehr news agency as saying that if the United States attacked Iran, Israel would be destroyed in half an hour.

Israel has long said that every option is on the table in ensuring that Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon, and has backed pledges to prevent Iranian military entrenchment in Syria by carrying out airstrikes there.

Tehran denies seeking nuclear arms.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Israeli spymaster sees ‘one-time’ chance for peace with Arabs sharing Iran worries

FILE PHOTO: Mossad director Joseph (Yossi) Cohen gestures as he addresses a budgeting conference hosted by Israel's Finance Ministry in Jerusalem October 22, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/File Photo

By Dan Williams

HERZLIYA, Israel (Reuters) – Israel and U.S.-aligned Arab countries have a unique chance to forge a regional peace deal given their shared worries about Iran, the chief of Israel’s Mossad spy service said on Monday.

In a rare public appearance, Joseph (Yossi) Cohen said his agency had formed a task force designed to spot peacemaking opportunities in a region where only two Arab states, Egypt and Jordan, have full diplomatic relations with Israel.

“The Mossad today espies a rare opportunity, perhaps for the first time in Middle East history, to arrive at a regional understanding that would lead to a comprehensive peace accord,” he told the Herzliya Conference, an annual international security forum near Tel Aviv.

“Common interests, the fight against rivals such as Iran and jihadist terrorism, the close relations with the White House, and channels of communication with the Kremlin all combine to create what might be a one-time window of opportunity,” he said.

The United States convened Arab and other dignitaries in Bahrain last week to encourage investment in the Palestinian economy that might help renew peace talks with Israel. 

The Palestinians, seeing a pro-Israel bias in the Trump administration and a ruse to deny them their goal of full statehood, boycotted the Manama meeting. Israel, which sent only a non-official delegation, saw in the event a chance to bolster its wider ties to the Arab world.

Cohen, whose speech alluded to the Palestinians only in the context of threats against Israel from the armed factions, said many Arab countries “cannot stand Iran’s thuggish behavior”.

He cited Iran’s nuclear program, assistance for guerrillas in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere, and alleged responsibility for a recent spate of sabotage strikes on oil tankers in the Gulf. Iran denies any role in those incidents.

RAPPROCHEMENT PUSH

Cohen said Israel’s warming of relations with Oman, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited last October, followed “a lengthy covert effort by the Mossad” to seek out closer ties.

He pointed to what he termed “an expanding group of responsible, serious countries” – which he did not name – in the region that have channels of communication with Israel despite no formal relations, and cooperate with it in various ways.

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz made a rare visit to Abu Dhabi, which does not have officials ties with Israel, for a two-day U.N. climate meeting on Sunday and Monday. While there, he met with an unnamed Emirati official to discuss bilateral ties as well as the Iranian threat, his office said.

Iran announced on Monday it had amassed more low-enriched uranium than permitted under its 2015 deal with major powers, its first major step in violation of the deal since the United States pulled out of it more than a year ago.

Cohen reaffirmed Israel’s policy that it would not allow its arch-foe to get a bomb. ”The Mossad or the State of Israel did not sign the nuclear deal (and) will do everything to ensure that Iran will never have nuclear weaponry,” he said.

Iran denies ever seeking to acquire a nuclear bomb.

“Currently, it’s about uranium enrichment at a relatively low percentage, and in amounts that are not large. The threat is to step up enrichment and increase the amounts,” Cohen said, speaking before news of the enrichment breach.

“Just imagine what will happen if the material stockpiled by the Iranians becomes fissionable, at military-enrichment grade, and then an actual bomb. The Middle East, and then the entire world, will be a different place. Therefore, the world must not allow this to happen.”

(Editing by Jeffrey Heller, William Maclean and Andrew Cawthorne)

Iran says it has breached 2015 nuclear deal’s stockpile limit

FILE PHOTO: Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif sits for an interview with Reuters in New York, New York, U.S. April 24, 2019. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri/File Photo

By Parisa Hafezi and Francois Murphy

DUBAI/VIENNA (Reuters) – Iran has breached the limit of its enriched uranium stockpile set in a 2015 deal with major powers, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Monday, according to the ISNA news agency, defying a warning by European co-signatories to stick to the deal despite U.S. sanctions.

Zarif confirmed that Iran had exceeded the relevant limit of 300 kg of uranium hexafluoride (UF6), but Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said Iran’s steps to decrease its commitments to the nuclear deal were “reversible”.

The International Atomic Energy agency (IAEA) said that its inspectors were verifying whether Iran had accumulated more enriched uranium than allowed.

“Our inspectors are on the ground and they will report to headquarters as soon as the LEU (low-enriched uranium) stockpile has been verified, a spokesman for the U.N. agency said.

Enriching uranium to a low level of 3.6% fissile material is the first step in a process that could eventually allow Iran to amass enough highly-enriched uranium to build a nuclear warhead.

Last Wednesday, the IAEA verified that Iran had roughly 200 kg of low-enriched uranium, just below the deal’s 202.8 kg limit, three diplomats who follow the agency’s work told Reuters. A quantity of 300 kg of UF6 (uranium hexafluoride) corresponds to 202.8 kg of LEU.

After talks on Friday in Vienna, Iran said European countries had offered too little in the way of trade assistance to persuade it to back off from its plan to breach the limit, a riposte to U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision last year to quit the deal and reimpose economic sanctions.

Mousavi urged them on Monday to step up their efforts. “Time is running out for them to save the deal,” state TV quoted him as saying.

The deal between Iran and six world powers lifted most international sanctions against Iran in return for restrictions on its nuclear work aimed at extending the time Iran would need to produce a nuclear bomb, if it chose to, from roughly 2-3 months to a year.

ISRAEL WORRIED

Iran says its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes, including generating power. Its regional adversary Israel, which Iran does not recognize, says the program presents it with an existential threat.

Joseph Cohen, head of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, urged the international community to stop Iran from “stepping up enrichment”.

“Just imagine what will happen if the material stockpiled by the Iranians becomes fissionable, at military enrichment grade, and then an actual bomb,” he told the Herzliya security conference before Zarif’s announcement.

“The Middle East, and then the entire world, will be a different place. Therefore, the world must not allow this to happen.”

In May, Washington piled pressure on Tehran by ordering all countries to halt imports of Iranian oil, and tensions have been growing in the Gulf ever since.

Washington has dispatched extra forces to the Middle East, and U.S. fighter jets came within minutes of conducting air strikes on Iran last month after Tehran downed an unmanned American drone.

In a speech on Monday broadcast on state TV, Iranian Zarif said: “Iran will never yield to pressure from the United States … If they want to talk to Iran, they should show respect …

“Never threaten an Iranian … Iran has always resisted pressure, and has responded with respect when respected.”

Trump has called for negotiations with Iran with “no preconditions”, but Tehran has ruled out talks until the United States returns to the nuclear pact and drops its sanctions.

(Additional reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh in Geneva; Francois Murphy in Vienna, Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Kevin Liffey)