Iran says U.S. should avoid ‘warmongers’ after Bolton departure

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during the cabinet meeting in Tehran, Iran, September 11, 2019. Official President website/Handout via REUTERS

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran said on Wednesday Washington should distance itself from “warmongers” after the resignation of hawkish White House National Security Adviser John Bolton, and Tehran stood by its demand that sanctions be lifted before any talks.

The departure of Bolton removes one of the strongest advocates of a hard line towards Iran from President Donald Trump’s White House and raises the prospect of steps to open up negotiations after more than a year of escalating tension.

“America should understand that … it should distance itself from warmongers,” Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency quoted President Hassan Rouhani as saying on Wednesday, without mentioning Bolton.

“Iran’s policy of resistance will not change as long as our enemy (the United States) continues to put pressure on Iran,” said Rouhani, a pragmatist who won two landslide elections in Iran on promises to open it up to the world.

Last year, the United States pulled out of an international accord between Iran and world powers under which Tehran accepted curbs on its nuclear program in return for access to world trade.

Washington says the agreement reached by Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama was too weak because many of its terms expire in a decade and it does not cover non-nuclear issues such as Iran’s missile program and regional behavior.

The White House has followed what the administration calls a policy of “maximum pressure”, including sanctions aimed at halting all Iranian oil exports, saying its ultimate aim is to push Tehran to the table for talks on a new, tougher deal.

Immediately after Bolton’s departure, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Tuesday that Trump could meet with Rouhani at an upcoming U.N, meeting with “no preconditions”.

“SIGH OF RELIEF”

Iran has rejected talks unless sanctions are lifted first. It said on Wednesday that Bolton’s exit had not changed that position.

“The departure of … Bolton from President Donald Trump’s administration will not push Iran to reconsider talking with the U.S.,” Iran’s U.N. envoy, Majid Takhteravanchi, was quoted as saying by state news agency IRNA.

Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif slammed the United States for ordering new sanctions on Iran despite Bolton’s departure.

“As the world … was breathing a sigh of relief over the ouster of #B_Team’s henchman in the White House, (Washington) declared further escalation of #EconomicTerrorism (sanctions) against Iran,” Zarif tweeted. “Thirst for war —maximum pressure— should go with the warmonger-in-chief (Bolton).”

Zarif has often said that a so-called “B-team” including Bolton could goad Trump into conflict with Tehran.

The United States on Tuesday announced sanctions on a “wide range of terrorists and their supporters”, including Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

Iran says it hopes to save the deal but cannot do so indefinitely if it gets none of its economic benefits. It has responded to U.S. sanctions with steps to reduce its compliance with the accord and has said it could eventually leave it unless other parties shield its economy from penalties.

“Iran’s commitments to the nuclear deal are proportional to other parties and we will take further steps if necessary,” Rouhani said.

Iran started using advanced centrifuges last week to ramp up output of enriched uranium and reduced its commitments to the nuclear deal, but said it was giving European countries another two months to come up with a plan to protect its economy.

France has proposed giving Iran a multi-billion dollar credit line which would shield it from some impact of U.S. sanctions, although any such deal would require the Trump administration’s tacit approval.

(This story was refiled to correct spelling of ‘weak’ in paragraph 6)

(Additional Reporting by Tuqa Khalid; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Peter Graff/William Maclean)

Netanyahu tells Macron timing wrong for Iran talks: statement

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a cornerstone-laying ceremony for Mobileye's center in Jerusalem August 27, 2019. Abir Sultan/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday to avoid new talks with Israel’s regional arch-foe Iran, his office said, as European leaders pushed to save the 2015 nuclear deal.

“This is precisely the wrong timing to hold talks with Iran, while it is increasing its aggression in the region,” Netanyahu told Macron in a telephone conversation that was initiated by the French leader, according to the Israeli statement.

Macron on Sunday paved the way for a potential breakthrough in the standoff between Washington and Tehran over the nuclear deal after Iran’s foreign minister made a flying visit for talks with host France at the G7 summit.

On Monday, at the G7 summit, U.S. President Donald Trump said that he would meet Iran’s president under the right circumstances and that talks were underway to see how countries could open credit lines to keep Iran’s economy afloat.

The nuclear deal has been in jeopardy since the United States withdrew from it last year and re-imposed economic sanctions, seeking to push Tehran into wider security concessions including curbs on its ballistic missile program.

Netanyahu, who sees Iran as a mortal threat and has long opposed the nuclear deal, has urged that sanctions be re-imposed on Tehran. He has so far been in lockstep with the Trump administration over its Iran policy.

On Tuesday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the Islamic Republic would not talk to the United States until all sanctions imposed on Tehran are lifted.

Rouhani said Iran was always ready to hold talks. “But first the U.S. should act by lifting all illegal, unjust and unfair sanctions imposed on Iran,” he said.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said on Friday that the European Union will work to preserve the nuclear deal and would welcome any moves to add to its conditions.

Macron’s diplomatic moves came as Israel-Iran tensions flared. Last Saturday, Israel’s military struck in Syria in what it described as the thwarting of an Iranian-led killer-drone attack on Israeli targets.

On Thursday, Israel accused Iran of stepping up efforts to provide the Lebanese Hezbollah militia with precision-guided missile production facilities.

“Israel will defend itself against any attacks and prevent enemies that seek its destruction from obtaining nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu told Macron, according to the statement.

Israel and the Iranian-backed Shi’ite Hezbollah are on high alert after drones were used on Sunday to attack what a security official in the region described as a target linked to precision-guided missile projects.

Hezbollah has blamed Israel for the rare strike in Beirut, and said it will retaliate. The heavily armed group has denied harboring such missile facilities.

(Reporting by Maayan Lubell, Editing by William Maclean)

Trump says ready to meet Iran’s president to solve nuclear impasse

U.S. President Donald Trump attends a joint press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron (not seen) at the end of the G7 summit in Biarritz, France, August 26, 2019. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

By John Irish and Michel Rose

BIARRITZ, France (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Monday he would meet Iran’s president under the right circumstances to end a confrontation over a 2015 nuclear deal and that talks were underway to see how countries could open credit lines to keep Iran’s economy afloat.

But Trump, speaking at a G7 summit in the French resort of Biarritz, ruled out lifting economic sanctions to compensate for losses suffered by Iran.

Trump told reporters it was realistic to envisage a meeting between him and President Hassan Rouhani in coming weeks, describing Iran as a country of “tremendous potential”.

“I have a good feeling. I think he (Rouhani) is going to want to meet and get their situation straightened out. They are hurting badly,” Trump said.

French President Emmanuel Macron, host of the G7 summit, told the same news conference that Rouhani had told him he would be open to meeting Trump. Macron said he hoped a summit between the two men could happen in coming weeks. Trump and Rouhani head to the United Nations General Assembly in September.

Rouhani is not Iran’s top decision-maker. That role is held by the fiercely anti-American Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – and anything agreed at a Trump-Rouhani encounter would be subject to Khamenei’s approval.

European leaders have struggled to calm the deepening confrontation between Iran and the United States since Trump pulled Washington out of Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers and reimposed sanctions on the Iranian economy.

But Macron has spent the summer trying to create conditions for a period of pause to bring the two sides back to the negotiating table.

“What I hope is that in coming weeks, based on these talks, we can manage to see a summit between President Rouhani and President Trump,” Macron said, adding that he believed if they met a deal could be struck.

Macron’s efforts took a surprise turn on Sunday when Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who is under U.S. sanctions, flew to the French seaside town of Biarritz where the Group of Seven leaders were meeting.

“VERY VIOLENT FORCE”

Appearing to refer to Iran’s recent combative rhetoric about its ability to attack U.S. interests, Trump suggested Iran would meet “violent force” if it followed through on its threats.

“They can’t do what they were saying they were going to do because if they do that, they will be met with really very violent force. So I think they are going to be good,” he said.

Trump said he was not open to giving Iran compensation for sanctions on its economy. However he said that the idea under discussion would be for numerous countries to give Iran a credit line to keep it going.

“No we are not paying, we don’t pay,” Trump said.

“But they may need some money to get them over a very rough patch and if they do need money, and it would be secured by oil, which to me is great security, and they have a lot of oil… so we are really talking about a letter of credit. It would be from numerous countries, numerous countries.”

The 2015 deal between Iran and six world powers, reached when Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama was in office, aimed to curb Iran’s disputed uranium enrichment program in exchange for the lifting of many international sanctions on Tehran.

Since ditching the deal last year, Trump has pursued a policy of “maximum pressure” to try to force Iran into broader talks to restrict Iran’s ballistic missile program and end its support for proxy forces around the Middle East as well.

During his brief visit on Sunday, Zarif held talks with Macron and British and German officials before returning home.

Though potentially a diplomatic minefield, Macron’s gamble with Zarif appears to have worked out for now, as Trump on Monday endorsed the French president’s initiative and toned down his usual harsh rhetoric on Tehran.

“MAKE IRAN RICH AGAIN”

While Trump reaffirmed Washington’s goal of extracting further-reaching security concessions from Iran, he said he wanted to see “a really good Iran, really strong”, adding that Washington was not looking for regime change.

“I knew (Zarif) was coming in and I respected the fact that he was coming in. We’re looking to make Iran rich again, let them be rich, let them do well, if they want,” Trump said.

While Trump’s European allies also want fresh negotiations with Iran, they believe the nuclear deal must be upheld to help ward off the risk of wider war in the Middle East. Macron had already met Zarif in Paris on Friday ahead of the G7 summit.

“What we want is very simple. It’s got to be non-nuclear (as well),” Trump said. “We’re going to talk about ballistic missiles…, about the timing. But they (Iran) have to stop terrorism. I think they are going to change, I really do.”

Trump said it was too early for him to meet Zarif himself.

Rouhani signaled a readiness to meet Trump if that helped Iran, according to the official presidency website.

“If I know that in meeting with somebody the problem of my country would be solved, I wouldn’t hesitate because the central issue is the national interests of the country,” Rouhani said.

(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Marine Pennetier, and Babak Dehghanpisheh in Geneva; Writing by John Irish; Editing by William Maclean and Gareth Jones)

Iran says meeting with parties to nuclear deal ‘constructive’

Iran's top nuclear negotiator Abbas Araqchi and EEAS Secretary General Helga Schmid attend a meeting of the JCPOA Joint Commission in Vienna, Austria July 28, 2019. REUTERS/Kirsti Knolle

By Kirsti Knolle

VIENNA (Reuters) – An emergency meeting with parties to Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal was constructive but there are unresolved issues and Tehran will continue to reduce its nuclear commitments if Europeans fail to salvage the pact, Iranian official Abbas Araqchi said on Sunday.

“The atmosphere was constructive. Discussions were good. I cannot say that we resolved everything, I can say there are lots of commitments,” Araqchi, the senior Iranian nuclear negotiator, told reporters after the meeting in Vienna.

Parties to the agreement – Britain, Germany and France plus Russia and China – met Iranian officials for talks called in response to an escalation in tensions between Iran and the West that included confrontations at sea and Tehran’s breaches of the nuclear accord.

“As we have said, we will continue to reduce our commitments to the deal until Europeans secure Iran’s interests under the deal,” Araqchi said.

The parties have been trying to salvage the pact since the United States withdrew from it in May 2018 and re-imposed and toughened sanctions on Iran, crippling an already weak economy.

The Europeans say further breaches of the agreement by Iran would escalate confrontation at a time when Tehran and Washington are at risk of a miscalculation that could lead to war.

However, their efforts to protect trade with Iran against the U.S. sanctions have yielded nothing concrete so far. Earlier this month, Tehran followed through on its threat to increase its nuclear activities in breach of the agreement.

Iran has said it will withdraw from the pact unless the Europeans find ways to shield its economy from the U.S. sanctions.

“All our steps taken so far are reversible if other parties to the deal fulfill their commitments,” an Iranian diplomat told Reuters ahead of the meeting.

In response to the sanctions, Iran said in May it would decrease its commitments under the nuclear pact. Under the deal, most international sanctions against Tehran were lifted in 2016, in exchange for limitations on its nuclear work.

So far, Iran has breached the limit of its enriched uranium stockpile as well as enriching uranium beyond a 3.67% purity limit set by its deal with major powers, defying a warning by Europeans to stick to the deal despite U.S. sanctions.

The U.N. nuclear watchdog, policing the deal, has confirmed the measures announced by Tehran.

SANCTIONS

Fu Cong, director-general of the Department of Arms Control of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, who leads the Chinese delegation, said: “All sides have expressed their commitment to safeguard the JCPOA (nuclear deal) and to continue to implement the JCPOA in a balanced manner.

“All sides have expressed their strong opposition against the U.S. unilateral imposition of sanctions.”

The meeting came after Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards seized a British-flagged oil tanker on July 19, two weeks after British forces captured an Iranian oil tanker near Gibraltar which it said was violating sanctions on Syria.

Araqchi said Britain’s seizure of the Iranian tanker was a violation of the nuclear pact.

“The countries who are part of (the nuclear deal) shouldn’t create obstacles for the export of Iranian oil,” Araqchi said.

Britain has called for a European-led naval mission to ensure safe shipping through the Strait of Hormuz, a vital international oil shipping route. An Iranian government spokesman said on Sunday such a mission would send a “hostile message”.

Britain said on Sunday Royal Navy destroyer HMS Duncan had arrived in the Gulf to join a British frigate escorting British-flagged ships through the Strait.

The seizure of the British tanker in the world’s most important waterway for the oil trade has deepened a crisis between Iran and the West. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Britain’s seizure of the Iranian oil tanker was illegal and would be detrimental for Britain.

After meeting Iranian officials in Tehran, Oman’s Foreign Minister Yousuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah said all parties should maintain contact to avoid more incidents in the Strait.

Iran has threatened to disrupt oil shipments through the waterway if the United States tries to strangle its economy with sanctions on its vital oil exports.

Several oil tankers were attacked in waters near Iran’s southern coast in May and June, for which the United States blamed Iran. Tehran denied any involvement.

Iran in June shot down a U.S. military surveillance drone in the Gulf, which Tehran said had violated its air space. Washington said the drone was in international skies.

(Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi, Aziz El Yaakoubi and Lisa Barrington in Dubai and Babak Dehghanpisheh in Geneva, Writing by Parisa Hafezi,; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

Fire and fury: With missile launch, North Korea shows ire at neighbor

A view of North Korea's missile launch on Thursday, in this undated picture released by North Korea's Central News Agency (KCNA) on July 26, 2019. KCNA/via REUTERS

By Josh Smith and Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s blistering criticism of South Korea as he oversaw his latest missile launch this week sparked new questions over the South’s role in mediating a nuclear deal between the North and the United States, analysts said.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has been one of the most vocal proponents of engagement with the North, using last year’s Winter Olympics to host its delegations and then meeting Kim at summits filled with feel-good imagery, smiles, and hand-holding.

But Moon has been unable to convince Washington to ease sanctions and allow economic cooperation between the neighbors, nor has he persuaded Kim to take major steps toward giving up his nuclear weapons.

On Friday, North Korea called the previous day’s missile launches a warning to South Korean “warmongers” to stop importing weapons and holding joint military drills, with Kim explicitly urging Moon not to ignore them.

Kim may be impatient with what he sees as South Korea overpromising and underdelivering, said Jenny Town, a managing editor at 38 North, a U.S.-based project that studies North Korea.

“The North Koreans have made several statements challenging Moon to move forward, but obviously the situation has left Seoul unable to do so,” she said.

For his part, Moon said there had been “a lot of progress so far in inter-Korean relations and North Korea-U.S. relations, but we still have a long way to go.”

“I think the biggest challenge is national unity,” he added, in comments to a group of Buddhist leaders in Seoul.

North Korea’s growing frustration with its neighbor culminated in the missile tests as a protest against the South’s acquisition of new weapons, such as U.S. F-35 stealth fighters, and its participation in military drills with the United States.

Kim’s comments showed how skeptical North Korea has become regarding the South’s usefulness in talks with the United States, said Shin Beom-chul of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

“To them, the South Korean government is only a nuisance,” he said. “So the message is either ‘Persuade the United States,’ or ‘Stay out of it.'”

Overseeing Thursday’s launches, Kim Jong Un said the new missiles had to be developed to neutralize the weapons being acquired by South Korea and turn them into “scrap iron”.

South Korea’s acquisition of American F-35 stealth fighter jets, the first of which arrived in March, would force its neighbor to develop and test “special armaments” to destroy the aircraft, the North had warned in mid-July.

While Moon has faced some domestic concern that national security could be affected by his North Korean pacts, from a no-fly zone to fewer guard posts and landmines along the heavily fortified border, he has also pushed ahead with plans to modernize and invest in the South’s already large military.

In January the defense ministry unveiled a plan to boost military spending for the next five years by an additional 270.7 trillion won ($228 billion).

Still, some observers believe Kim Jong Un is leaving space for engagement by focusing on South Korea’s military.

“The state media report shows the North was still willing to maintain inter-Korean ties, as they mostly targeted the military forces, not the whole government,” said Kim Dong-yup, a professor at Kyungnam University’s Far East Institute in Seoul.

An official at Moon’s office said it would not comment on the state media report but the government remained committed to working to revive momentum for nuclear talks.

Poor relations have also prompted a show of reluctance by Pyongyang in accepting 50,000 tons of rice South Korea offered as food aid to its impoverished neighbor.

A South Korean official said the government discussed the plan with the World Food Programme, but Pyongyang had recently showed a “negative” attitude, citing the joint military drills.

Attempts to discuss two South Korean sailors detained by the North have also gone unanswered, the official added.

(Reporting by Josh Smith and Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Joyce Lee; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

Khamenei says Iran to continue to cut nuclear deal commitments

FILE PHOTO: Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a speech during a ceremony marking the death anniversary of the founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in Tehran, Iran, June 4, 2017. TIMA via REUTERS

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on Tuesday Iran would continue to reduce its commitments under its nuclear deal, accusing European partners of not fulfilling their obligations.

“According to our foreign minister, Europe made 11 commitments, none of which they abided by. We abided by our commitments and even beyond them. Now that we’ve begun to reduce our commitments, they oppose it. How insolent! You didn’t abide by your commitments!” Khamenei said, according to his website.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom)

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)

‘We only want to sell our oil,’ Iran official says before nuclear talks

FILE PHOTO: Oil tankers pass through the Strait of Hormuz, December 21, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed/File Photo

By Francois Murphy

VIENNA (Reuters) – Iran’s main demand in talks aimed at saving its nuclear deal is to be able to sell its oil at the same levels that it did before Washington withdrew from the accord a year ago, an Iranian official said on Thursday.

Iran is threatening to go over the maximum amount of enriched uranium it is allowed under the deal in retaliation for crippling U.S. economic sanctions imposed in the past year. It is just days away from that limit, diplomats say, and going over it could unravel the accord.

Senior officials from Iran and the deal’s remaining parties will meet in Vienna on Friday with the aim of saving the agreement. But with European powers limited in their ability to shield Iran’s economy from U.S. sanctions it is unclear what they can do to provide the large economic windfall Tehran wants.

“What is our demand? Our demand is to be able to sell our oil and get the money back. And this is, in fact, the minimum of our benefit from the deal,” the official told reporters on condition of anonymity.

“We are not asking Europeans to invest in Iran… We only want to sell our oil.”

European powers and Iran have set up a mechanism for barter trade called Instex that would net out amounts at either end but it is not yet operational and diplomats have said it will only be able to handle small volumes for items like medicine, not the large oil sales Iran is seeking.

“Europeans should either buy oil from us or give its money (price) to us,” the official said.

“Instex is a netting company. It is supposed to net the accounts between importers and exporters. And the only export of Iran to Europe is oil. So if they don’t buy oil from us there is no money to be netted between import and export.”

Until its demand is met, Iran will continue on its current path and go over limits of the deal one by one, starting with the uranium enrichment level, he said, adding that those steps could also be undone quickly, such as by ‘downblending’ enriched uranium with natural uranium to reduce its stock.

KILL THE DEAL?

Going over such central limits of the deal could prompt European powers to re-impose sanctions through a process known as ‘snapback’. The official said if that happened the deal would be dead.

“I believe and I think the Europeans are wise enough not to kill the deal for something which is easily reversible,” he said.

If the Europeans did, however, go to the U.N. Security Council to carry out the snapback process, that could prompt Iran to abandon its current policy of engagement and pull out of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as North Korea did, he said.

“Going out of NPT doesn’t happen immediately. It needs three months’ notification in advance. Even in that scenario, there is still a chance for diplomacy,” he said.

(Reporting by Francois Murphy, Editing by Andrew Heavens, William Maclean)

Iran says U.S. sanctions on Khamenei mean end of diplomacy

FILE PHOTO: Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei waves his hand as he arrives to deliver a speech during a ceremony marking the 30th death anniversary of the founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran, Iran June 4, 2019. Official Khamenei website/Handout via REUTERS

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) – New U.S. sanctions against Iran’s supreme leader and foreign minister have closed off diplomacy, Iran said on Tuesday, blaming the United States for abandoning the only route to peace just days after the two foes came within minutes of conflict.

U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order imposing sanctions on Monday against Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other senior figures. Sanctions against Foreign Minister Mohmmad Javad Zarif are expected later this week.

The moves came after Iran shot down a U.S. drone last week and Trump called off a retaliatory air strike minutes before impact, which would have been the first time the United States had bombed Iran in decades of hostility between them.

Trump said he decided at the last minute that too many people would die.

“Imposing useless sanctions on Iran’s Supreme Leader and the commander of Iran’s diplomacy is the permanent closure of the path of diplomacy,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said on Twitter.

“Trump’s desperate administration is destroying the established international mechanisms for maintaining world peace and security,” Mousavi tweeted.

In a televised address, President Hassan Rouhani said sanctions against Khamenei would have no practical impact because the cleric had no assets abroad.

Rouhani, a pragmatist who won two elections on promises to open Iran up to the world, described the U.S. moves as desperate and called the White House “mentally retarded” – an insult Iranian officials have used in the past about Trump but a departure from Rouhani’s own comparatively measured tone.

Rouhani and his cabinet run Iran’s day-to-day affairs, while Khamenei, in power since 1989, is Iran’s ultimate authority.

“The White House actions mean it is mentally retarded,” Rouhani said. “Tehran’s strategic patience does not mean we have fear.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the situation around Iran was developing toward a dangerous scenario, RIA news agency reported.

“OPEN DOOR”

Trump’s hawkish national security adviser, John Bolton, visiting Israel, repeated earlier offers to hold talks, as long as Iran was willing to go beyond the terms of a 2015 nuclear deal with world powers which Trump abandoned last year.

“The president has held the door open to real negotiations to completely and verifiably eliminate Iran’s nuclear weapons program, its pursuit of ballistic missile delivery systems, its support for international terrorism and other malign behavior worldwide,” Bolton said in Jerusalem. “All that Iran needs to do is to walk through that open door.”

The United States has imposed crippling economic sanctions against Iran since last year, when Trump withdrew from an agreement between Tehran and world powers to curb Iran’s nuclear program in return for the lifting of sanctions.

The crisis has escalated sharply since last month, when the Trump administration tightened the sanctions, ordering all countries to halt purchases of Iranian oil.

That has effectively starved the Iranian economy of the main source of revenue Tehran uses to import food for its 81 million people, and left Iran’s pragmatic faction with no benefits to show for its nuclear agreement.

Washington says the 2015 agreement reached under Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama did not go far enough because it is not permanent and does not cover issues beyond the nuclear program, such as missiles and regional behavior.

Iran says there is no point negotiating with Washington when it has abandoned a deal that was already reached.

The downing of the U.S. drone – which Iran says was over its air space and the United States says was international skies – was the culmination of weeks of rising tensions that had begun to take on a military dimension.

The United States and some regional allies have blamed Iran for attacks on tankers in the Gulf, which Tehran denies. Washington’s European allies have repeatedly warned both sides of the danger that a small mistake could lead to war.

Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev came to Iran’s support, saying the drone was in Iranian airspace when it was shot down and that the evidence on the tanker attacks was of poor quality and unprofessional, not enough to draw conclusions.

During a visit to Jerusalem, Patrushev also said it was unacceptable to portray Iran as a threat to international security and called for restraint to help defuse the situation.

Washington says forcing Iran to the table is the purpose of its sanctions. Tehran has said it is willing to talk if the United States lifts the new sanctions first, although Tuesday’s statements appear to toughen that stance.

Trump is leaving a path open to diplomacy with Iran but Tehran would be making a mistake if it interprets his restraint over the downing of a drone as weakness, U.S. disarmament ambassador Robert Wood told a conference in Geneva.

“We will not initiate a conflict against Iran, nor do we intend to deny Iran the right to defend its airspace but if Iran continues to attack us, our response will be decisive,” he said.

U.S. officials have launched a diplomatic campaign to rally their allies in the face of the escalating crisis. Foreign Secretary Mike Pompeo jetted to the Middle East on Monday to meet leaders of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Gulf Arab states that favor the toughest possible line against Iran.

The U.S. envoy on Iran, Brian Hook, is visiting Europe, where he is likely to get a frostier reception from allies who support the nuclear deal. They believe Trump’s decision to quit the accord was a mistake that has strengthened Iran’s hardline faction, weakened its pragmatists and endangered regional peace.

Iran says it still aims to comply with the nuclear deal, but cannot do so indefinitely unless it receives some benefits. It has given European countries until July 8 to find a way to shield its economy from U.S. sanctions, or else it will enrich uranium to levels banned under the deal.

(Reporting by Parisa Hafezi; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Jon Boyle/Mark Heinrich)

Iran’s Khamenei: Tehran will not abandon its missile program

FILE PHOTO: Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks on television after voting in a presidential election in Tehran, June 12, 2009. REUTERS/Caren Firouz//File Photo

LONDON (Reuters) – Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Tuesday that Tehran would not be “deceived” by U.S. President Donald Trump’ss offer of negotiations and would not give up its missile program.

Iran and the United States have been drawn into a starker confrontation in the past month, a year after Washington pulled out of a deal between Iran and global powers to curb Tehran’s nuclear program in return for lifting international sanctions.

Trump has condemned the nuclear deal, signed by his predecessor Barack Obama, as flawed for not being permanent and for not covering Iran’s ballistic missile program and its role in conflicts around the Middle East. He has called on Iran to come to negotiating table to reach a new deal.

Trump said last week that Iran “has a chance to be a great country, with the same leadership. We’re not looking for regime change. I just want to make that clear. We’re looking for no nuclear weapons.”

Reacting to those comments, Khamenei said in a speech broadcast on state television: “The U.S. president recently said Iran can achieve development with its current leaders. That means they do not seek regime change … But this political trick will not deceive Iranian officials and the Iranian nation.”

“In the missile program, they know we have reached a point of deterrence and stability. They want to deprive us from it, but they will never succeed,” Khamenei said, speaking at a ceremony marking the 30th anniversary of the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Khamenei said U.S. sanctions have created hardship for Iranians and called on the government to make improving economic conditions its top priority.

President Hassan Rouhani, who has taken a softer stance, suggested last week that Iran might be willing to hold talks if the United States showed it respect and lifted sanctions.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Sunday the United States was prepared to engage with Iran without pre-conditions about its nuclear program. Iran dismissed the offer as “word-play”.

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin; Editing by Gareth Jones and Frances Kerry)