Israel sees Iranian atomic bomb in five years, deal or no deal

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Iran is five years away from developing a nuclear weapon, and international talks due to restart next week will do nothing to slow it down, Israel said on Tuesday, adding it reserved the right to act to protect itself.

Indirect negotiations to revive the 2015 accord, under which Iran agreed to curbs on its nuclear program in return for the lifting of international sanctions, are due to resume in Vienna next Monday after a five-month pause.

Israel long opposed the nuclear deal, but Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government, in power since June, had previously said it could be open to a new deal with tougher restrictions. In remarks on Tuesday to a security forum, however, he sounded less accommodating.

Bennett described Iran, which denies it is pursuing nuclear arms, as being at “the most advanced stage” of a nuclear weapons program.

“In any event, even if there is a return to a deal, Israel is of course not a party to the deal and Israel is not obligated by the deal,” he told the conference, hosted by Reichman University.

Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman said: “With or without an agreement, Iran will be a nuclear state and have a nuclear weapon within five years, tops.”

Israel, itself widely believed to have nuclear weapons, has long argued that the 2015 deal was too weak to prevent Iran from pursuing a bomb. Former U.S. President Donald Trump abandoned the deal in 2018, describing it as too soft, and Iran responded by violating some of the deal’s restrictions. President Joe Biden’s administration aims to revive it.

Israel has also complained that the nuclear agreement does nothing to rein in Iran’s missile program, or hostile activity by Iranian-backed militia.

“The Iranians have encircled the State of Israel with missiles while they sit safely in Tehran,” Bennett said. “To chase the terrorist du jour sent by the (Iranian covert) Qods Force does not pay off anymore. We must go for the dispatcher.”

Speaking separately, the chief of Israel’s air force offered cooperation with Gulf Arab partners against Iranian-made attack drones, a rare public airing of the possibility of joint operations.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Giles Elgood)

At U.N., Israeli PM Bennett says Iran has crossed all nuclear “red lines”

By Michelle Nichols, Matt Spetalnick and Stephen Farrell

NEW YORK (Reuters) -Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Monday that Iran had crossed “all red lines” in its nuclear program and vowed that Israel would not allow Tehran to acquire a nuclear weapon.

In his first speech before the United Nations General Assembly, Bennett said Iran sought to dominate the Middle East under a “nuclear umbrella” and urged a more concerted international effort to halt Iran’s nuclear activities.

But he also hinted at the potential for Israel to act on its own against Iran, something it has repeatedly threatened in the past.

“Iran’s nuclear program has hit a watershed moment, and so has our tolerance,” Bennett said. “Words do not stop centrifuges from spinning.”

Bennett, a far-right politician who ended Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12-year run as prime minister in June, wants U.S. President Joe Biden to harden his stance against Iran, Israel’s regional arch-foe. He opposes the new U.S. administration’s efforts to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that Biden’s White House predecessor, Donald Trump, abandoned in 2018.

Indirect U.S.-Iran talks in Vienna have stalled as Washington awaits the next move by Iran’s new hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi.

Bennett struck a less combative tone before the United Nations than Netanyahu, who often relied on props and visual aids to dramatize his accusations against Iran, an approach that critics derided as political stunts.

But Bennett has been just as adamant as Netanyahu was in pledging to do whatever is necessary to prevent Iran, which Israel views as an existential threat, from building a nuclear weapon. Iran consistently denies it is seeking a bomb.

“Iran’s nuclear weapons program is at a critical point. All red lines have been crossed, inspections ignored,” Bennett said. “They’re getting away with it.”

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols at the UN, Matt Spetalnick in Washington and Stephen Farrell in London, additional reporting by Zainah El-Haroun and Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem; Editing by Alex Richardson)

Biden, Israeli PM seek to reset relations, narrow differences on Iran

By Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Thursday will seek to reset the tone of U.S.-Israeli relations in their first White House meeting and find common ground on Iran despite differences on how to deal with its nuclear program.

In talks overshadowed by the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the two leaders will try to turn the page on years of tensions between Bennett’s predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, who was close to former President Donald Trump, and the last Democratic administration led by Barack Obama with Biden as his vice president.

The meeting, originally scheduled for Thursday morning, was delayed until later in the day, U.S. and Israeli officials said, while Biden held consultations with top aides about two explosions near Kabul’s airport amid a frantic evacuation effort from Afghanistan.

Suspected suicide bombers struck, causing a bloodbath among desperate civilians hoping to flee. A Taliban official said at least 13 people were killed. The Pentagon said U.S. personnel were among those hurt.

In what was planned as a low-key meeting, Bennett wants to move on from Netanyahu’s combative public style and instead manage disagreements constructively behind closed doors between Washington and its closest Middle East ally.

The visit gives Biden an opportunity to demonstrate business as usual with a key partner while contending with the complex situation in Afghanistan. Biden’s biggest foreign policy crisis since taking office has not only hurt his approval ratings at home but raised questions about his credibility among both friends and foes.

Topping the agenda is Iran, one of the thorniest issues between the Biden administration and Israel.

Bennett, a far-right politician who ended Netanyahu’s 12-year run as prime minister in June, is expected to press Biden to harden his approach to Iran and halt negotiations aimed at reviving the international nuclear deal that Trump abandoned.

Biden will tell Bennett that he shares Israel’s concern that Iran has expanded its nuclear program but remains committed for now to diplomacy with Tehran, a senior administration official said. U.S.-Iran negotiations have stalled as Washington awaits the next move by Iran’s new hardline president.

Briefing reporters ahead of the meeting, the official said: “Since the last administration left the Iran nuclear deal, Iran’s nuclear program has just dramatically broken out of the box.”

The official said that if the diplomatic path with Iran fails, “there are other avenues to pursue,” but did not elaborate.

Bennett has been less openly combative but just as adamant as Netanyahu was in pledging to do whatever is necessary to prevent Iran, which Israel views as an existential threat, from building a nuclear weapon. Iran consistently denies it is seeking a bomb.

The two leaders are expected to speak briefly to a small pool of reporters during their Oval Office meeting but there will not be a joint news conference, limiting the potential for public disagreement.

AT ODDS ON PALESTINIAN ISSUES

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Biden and Bennett are also divided. Biden has renewed backing for a two-state solution after Trump distanced himself from that long-standing tenet of U.S. policy. Bennett opposes Palestinian statehood.

The consensus among Biden’s aides is that now is not the time to push for a resumption of long-dormant peace talks or major Israeli concessions, which could destabilize Bennett’s ideologically diverse coalition.

But Biden’s aides have not ruled out asking Bennett for modest gestures to help avoid a recurrence of the fierce Israel-Hamas fighting in the Gaza Strip that caught the new U.S. administration flat-footed earlier this year.

Among the issues that could be raised in Thursday’s talks is the Biden administration’s goal of re-establishing a consulate in Jerusalem that served the Palestinians and which Trump closed. Biden’s aides have moved cautiously on the issue.

The administration has also emphasized that it opposes further expansion of Jewish settlements on occupied land.

Bennett, 49, the son of American immigrants to Israel, has been a vocal proponent of settlement building.

Biden’s advisers are also mindful that Israeli officials may be concerned about the apparent failure of U.S. intelligence to predict the swift fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban.

Biden intends to reassure Bennett that the end of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan does not reflect a “de-prioritizing” of the U.S. commitment to Israel and other Middle East allies, the senior U.S. official said.

Biden will also discuss with Bennett behind-the-scenes efforts to get more Arab countries to normalize relations with Israel, the senior U.S. official said. This would follow in the footsteps of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco, which reached accords with Israel brokered by the Trump administration.

On Wednesday, Bennett met U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. He was expected to discuss, among other issues, the replenishing of the Iron Dome missile defense system that Israel relies on to fend off rocket attacks from Gaza.

(Reporting By Matt Spetalnick; additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Steve Holland in Washington; writing by Matt Spetalnick; editing by Grant McCool)

Iran reacts coolly to U.S. talk offer, demands lifting of sanctions

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran will “immediately reverse” actions in its nuclear program once U.S. sanctions are lifted, its foreign minister said on Friday, reacting coolly to Washington’s initial offer to revive talks with Tehran aimed at restoring the 2015 nuclear deal.

President Joe Biden’s administration said on Thursday it was ready to talk to Iran about both nations returning to the accord, which aimed to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons while lifting most international sanctions. Former President Donald Trump left the accord in 2018 and reimposed sanctions on Iran.

Tehran said Washington’s move was not enough to persuade Iran to fully respect the accord.

When sanctions are lifted, “we will then immediately reverse all remedial measures. Simple,” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Twitter.

Since Trump ditched the deal, Tehran has breached the accord by rebuilding stockpiles of low-enriched uranium, enriching it to higher levels of fissile purity and installing advanced centrifuges to speed up production.

Tehran and Washington have been at odds over who should make the first step to revive the accord. Iran says the United States must first lift Trump’s sanctions while Washington says Tehran must first return to compliance with the deal.

However, a senior Iranian official told Reuters that Tehran was considering Washington’s offer to talk about the revival of the deal.

“But first they should return to the deal. Then within the framework of the 2015 deal, a mechanism to basically synchronize steps can be discussed,” the official said. “We have never sought nuclear weapons and this is not part of our defense doctrine,” the Iranian official said. “Our message is very clear. Lift all the sanctions and give diplomacy a chance.”

The European Union is working on organizing an informal meeting with all participants of the Iran deal and the United States, which has already signaled willingness to join any gathering, a senior EU official said on Friday.

Adding to pressure for a resolution to the impasse, a law passed by the hardline parliament obliges Tehran on Feb. 23 to cancel the sweeping access given to U.N. inspectors under the deal, limiting their visits to declared nuclear sites only.

The United States and the European parties to the accord have urged Iran to refrain from taking the step, which will complicate Biden’s efforts to restore the pact.

POLITICAL INFIGHTING

“We have to implement the law. The other party must act quickly and lift these unjust and illegal sanctions if they want Tehran to honor the deal,” said the Iranian official.

The IAEA’s short-notice inspections, which can range anywhere beyond Iran’s declared nuclear sites, are mandated under the IAEA’s “Additional Protocol” that Iran agreed to honor under the deal.

While Iran’s demand for a lifting of all U.S. sanctions is unlikely to be met anytime soon, analysts said, Tehran faces a delicate choice about how to respond to Biden’s overture with an upcoming presidential election in June.

With growing discontent at home over economic hardship, the election turnout is seen as a referendum on the clerical establishment — a potential risk for Iran’s rulers. Hardliners, set to win the vote and tighten their grip, have been pushing to squeeze more concessions from Washington for reviving the deal.

Iran’s fragile economy, weakened by U.S. sanctions and coronavirus crisis, has left the ruling elite with few options.

“Hardliners are not against dealing with Washington. But their tactic is to stall any engagement to get more concessions until a hardline president is at the office,” said a senior government official.

Some Iranian hardliners said top authority Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s tough stance had forced Washington to cave in. On Wednesday he demanded “action, not words” from the United States if it wants to restore the deal.

“They have reversed some measures … It is a defeat for America … but we are waiting to see whether there will be action on lifting sanctions,” state media quoted Tabriz city’s Friday prayer leader Mohammadali Ale-Hashem as saying.

Biden has said that he will use the revival of the nuclear deal as a springboard to a broader agreement that might restrict Iran’s ballistic missile development and regional activities.

Tehran has ruled out negotiations on wider security issues such as Iran’s missile program.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by William Maclean and Frances Kerry)

Iran holds election, hardliners set to dominate with turnout key

By Parisa Hafezi and Babak Dehghanpisheh

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iranians voted on Friday in a parliamentary election likely to help hardline loyalists of the supreme leader tighten their grip on power as the country faces mounting U.S. pressure over its nuclear program and growing discontent at home.

State television said voting, which began at 0430 GMT, would run for 10 hours but could be extended depending on turnout. In mid-afternoon, an Interior Ministry official told state TV that about 11 million of 58 million eligible voters had cast their ballots for candidates in the 290-member parliament.

The election is seen as a referendum on the popularity of the clerical establishment given that most moderates and leading conservative candidates were barred from running.

With thousands of potential candidates disqualified in favor of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s allies, the vote is not expected to ease Iran’s nuclear standoff with the United States or spawn a softer foreign policy.

Parliament’s power is limited, but gains by security hawks could weaken pragmatists and conservatives who support the ruling theocracy but also more economically beneficial engagement with the West, from which Tehran has been estranged since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

A rise in the number of hardliners in the assembly may also help them in the 2021 contest for president, a job with broad daily control of government. Pragmatist President Hassan Rouhani won the last two elections on promises to open Iran to the outside world.

The United States’ 2018 withdrawal from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, and its reimposition of sanctions, have hit Iran’s economy hard and led to widespread hardships.

A U.S. drone strike killed Iran’s most prominent military commander, Qassem Soleimani, in Iraq on Jan. 3. Iran retaliated by firing ballistic missiles at U.S. targets in Iraq, killing no one but causing brain injuries in over 100 soldiers.

Encouraging Iranians to vote, state TV aired footage of people lined up at polling stations set up mainly at mosques.

“I am here to vote. It is my duty to follow martyr Soleimani’s path,” said a young voter at a mosque at a cemetery, where Soleimani is buried in his hometown.

Soleimani, architect of Tehran’s overseas clandestine and military operations as head of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, was a national hero to many Iranians. He was Iran’s most powerful figure after Khamenei.

“Each vote put into the ballot box is a missile into the heart of America,” said Amirali Hajizadeh, head of the aerospace unit of the Revolutionary Guards.

Rouhani urged Iranians to “further disappoint the enemies” by voting in large numbers.

But weariness among women and the young, who comprise a majority of voters, about high unemployment and restrictions on social freedoms looked likely to depress the turnout.

LOWER TURNOUT LOOMS

Iranians who joined large protests in November called on their leaders to focus on improving the battered economy and tackling state corruption, also urging Khamenei to step down.

“I don’t care about this election. Moderates or hardliners, they are all alike. We are getting poorer with each passing day,” university student Pouriya, 24, said by telephone from the city of Isfahan. “I am leaving Iran soon. There are no jobs, no future for us.”

Iranian authorities forecast a turnout of about 50%, compared to 62% and 66% respectively in the 2016 and 2012 votes.

Iranians contacted by Reuters in several cities by telephone said turnout was low.

“In my area in central Tehran not many people are voting. There is one polling station just beside my house in Javadiyeh and only a handful of voters were there when I last checked an hour ago,” said sports teacher Amirhossein, 28.

With Iran facing deepening isolation on the global stage and discontent at home over economic privations, analysts described the election as a litmus test of the leaders’ handling of the political and economic crises.

Health ministry authorities advised voters not to be concerned about the threat of new coronavirus cases, as Tehran confirmed 13 new ones on Friday, two of whom have died.

“RELIGIOUS DUTY”

The slate of hardline candidates is dominated by acolytes of Khamenei, including former members of the Guards, who answer directly to the supreme leader, and their affiliated Basij militia, insiders and analysts say.

Former Guards commander Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf tops the parliamentary list of the main hardline coalition for Tehran’s 30 seats in the assembly.

Khamenei was the first to cast his ballot, saying voting is “a religious duty”.

The Guardian Council removed 6,850 moderates and leading conservatives from the field, citing various grounds for the rejections including “corruption and being unfaithful to Islam”.

That left voters with a choice mostly between hardline and low-key conservative candidates. On Thursday, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on members of the Council over the candidate bans.

Iran’s rulers have faced a legitimacy crisis since last year when protests over a fuel price hike turned political with demonstrators calling for “regime change”. The unrest was met with the bloodiest crackdown since the Islamic Revolution, with hundreds of protesters killed.

Many Iranians are also angry over the shooting-down of a Ukrainian passenger plane in error in January that killed all 176 people on board, mainly Iranians. After days of denials, Tehran said the Guards were to blame.

(Additional reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Michael Georgy and Mark Heinrich)

Iran vows to continue missile work, dismisses EU powers’ U.N. letter

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran on Thursday rejected pressure to shelve its ballistic missile program after a European letter to the U.N. Security Council accused Tehran of developing missiles capable of being delivering nuclear bombs.

The British, German and French ambassadors to the U.N. Security Council, in a letter circulated on Wednesday, called on U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to inform the Council in his next report that Iran’s missile program was “inconsistent” with a U.N. resolution underpinning the 2015 nuclear deal reached between Iran and six world powers.

Iran responded defiantly, saying it was determined to proceed with its disputed ballistic missile program, which it has repeatedly described as defensive in purpose and nothing to do with its nuclear activity.

“Iran is determined to resolutely continue its activities related to ballistic missiles and space launch vehicles,” Iranian U.N. envoy Majid Takhte Ravanchi said in a letter to Guterres.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had earlier on Thursday denounced the European powers’ intervention.

“Latest E3 letter to UNSG on missiles is a desperate falsehood to cover up their miserable incompetence in fulfilling bare minimum of their own #JCPOA obligations,” Zarif tweeted, referring to the nuclear deal by its formal acronym. He urged Britain, France and Germany not to bow to “U.S. bullying”.

The European letter surfaced at a time of heightened friction between Iran and the West, with Tehran rolling back its commitments under the deal step by step in response to Washington’s pullout from the pact last year and reimposition of sanctions on the Islamic Republic that has crippled its economy.

A 2015 U.N. resolution “called upon” Iran to refrain for up to eight years from work on ballistic missiles that could be capable of delivering nuclear warheads.

Some states – including Russia, which with four other world powers wields a veto on the Security Council – argue that the language does not make it obligatory.

France said on Thursday that Iran’s ballistic missile activities did not conform with the Security Council resolution and called on Tehran to respect all of its obligations under that resolution.

The Security Council is due to meet on Dec. 20 to weight the state of compliance with the resolution underpinning the nuclear deal, and the European letter “will add to that discussion,” a senior European diplomat told Reuters.

Britain, France and Germany have sought to salvage the nuclear pact, under which Iran undertook to curtail its disputed uranium enrichment program in return for relief from sanctions. But Tehran has criticized the three European powers for failing to shield Iran’s economy from the U.S. penalties.

The United States, Iran’s arch foe, and its allies in the Middle East view Tehran’s ballistic missile program as a Middle East security threat.

(Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris and Tuqa Khalid in Dubai; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Iran launches nuclear enrichment at underground Fordow plant, IAEA confirms

Iran launches nuclear enrichment at underground Fordow plant, IAEA confirms
VIENNA (Reuters) – Iran has begun enriching uranium at its underground Fordow site in the latest breach of its deal with major powers, the U.N. nuclear watchdog confirmed on Monday, adding that Tehran’s enriched uranium stock has continued to grow.

Iran is contravening the deal’s limits on its nuclear activities step by step in response to Washington’s withdrawal from the accord last year and its renewed sanctions on Tehran. Tehran says it can quickly undo those breaches if Washington lifts its sanctions.

In a quarterly report, the International Atomic Energy Agency policing the deal confirmed Iran’s announcement last week that it had begun enriching uranium at its Fordow site buried inside a mountain, something prohibited by the deal. “Since 9 November…, Iran has been conducting uranium enrichment at the plant,” said the confidential IAEA report, obtained by Reuters.

Iran’s stock of enriched uranium has increased, to 372.3 kg, well above the deal’s 202.8 kg cap. The maximum fissile purity to which Iran has enriched uranium so far, however, remains 4.5 %, above the deal’s 3.67% cap but still well below the 20% Iran has achieved before and the 90% required for atomic bomb fuel.

Iran has continued to enrich with centrifuge machines other than its most basic model, the IR-1, which is not allowed under the deal, the IAEA report added. It has enriched with more advanced centrifuges and even installed small numbers of centrifuges not mentioned in the deal, the report showed.

Iran said last week it was working on a advanced prototype of centrifuge that could enrich 50 times as fast as the IR-1, deemed by experts as antiquated and prone to breakdown.

(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

North Korea breaks off nuclear talks with U.S. in Sweden

By Johan Ahlander and Philip O’Connor

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – Working-level nuclear talks in Sweden between officials from Pyongyang and Washington have broken off, North Korea’s top negotiator said late on Saturday, dashing prospects for an end to months of stalemate.

The talks, at an isolated conference center on the outskirts of Stockholm, were the first such formal discussion since U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met in June and agreed to restart negotiations that stalled after a failed summit in Vietnam in February.

The North’s chief nuclear negotiator, Kim Myong Gil, who spent much of the day in talks with an American delegation, cast the blame on what he portrayed as U.S. inflexibility, saying the other side’s negotiators would not “give up their old viewpoint and attitude.”

“The negotiations have not fulfilled our expectation and finally broke off,” Kim told reporters outside the North Korean embassy, speaking through an interpreter.

The U.S. State Department said Kim’s comments did not reflect “the content or spirit” of more than 8-1/2 hours of talks, and Washington had accepted Sweden’s invitation to return for more discussions with Pyongyang in two weeks.

“The U.S. brought creative ideas and had good discussions with its DPRK counterparts,” spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement. North Korea is also known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

She said the U.S. delegation had previewed a number of new initiatives that would pave the way for progress in the talks, and underscored the importance of more intensive engagement.

“The United States and the DPRK will not overcome a legacy of 70 years of war and hostility on the Korean peninsula through the course of a single Saturday,” she added.

“These are weighty issues, and they require a strong commitment by both countries. The United States has that commitment.”

North Korea’s Kim downplayed the U.S. gestures.

“The U.S. raised expectations by offering suggestions like a flexible approach, new method and creative solutions, but they have disappointed us greatly and dampened our enthusiasm for negotiation by bringing nothing to the negotiation table,” he said.

Swedish broadcaster TV4 said the U.S. Special Representative for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, who led the team, had arrived back at the U.S. embassy in central Stockholm.

The Swedish foreign office declined to give details on the invitation for new talks, or whether Pyongyang had accepted.

Since June, U.S. officials had struggled to persuade North Korea, which is under sanctions banning much of its trade, due to its nuclear program, to return to the table, but that appeared to change this week when the North abruptly announced it had agreed to talks.

On Saturday, negotiator Kim accused the United States of having no intention of solving difficulties through dialogue, but said a complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula was still possible.

It would only happen “when all the obstacles that threaten our safety and check our development are removed completely without a shadow of doubt,” he said, in an apparent reference to North Korea’s desire for Washington to ease economic pressure.

On Sunday, China’s President Xi Jinping and the North’s leader exchanged messages to reaffirm the neighbors’ relationship on the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties. China is the North’s only major ally.

Xi, who has met Kim five times in the past year, said they had “reached a series of important consensuses, leading China-North Korea relations into a new historical era”, the official Xinhua news agency said.

Kim replied the two leaders would “resolutely safeguard the peace and stability of the Korean peninsula and the world,” Xinhua reported.

TENSIONS

The delegation from North Korea arrived in Sweden on Thursday. Analysts have said both countries’ leaders had growing incentives to reach a deal, but it was unclear if common ground could be found after months of tension and deadlock.

The readout from the talks did not sound very promising, said Jenny Town, a managing editor at 38 North, a Washington-based North Korea project.

“I think (North Korea’s) expectations were too high that the removal of Bolton would provide more flexibility on what the U.S. wants as initial steps,” she said, referring to Trump’s hardline former aide John Bolton, abruptly fired last month amid disagreements on how to tackle foreign policy challenges.

“While certainly it removes some pressure for an all or nothing deal, it seems the gap between what the two sides want as a baseline and are willing to reciprocate still has not narrowed,” Town added.

An official at South Korea’s presidential office said the talks in Sweden were nevertheless the beginning of negotiations, and that South Korea hoped the United States and North Korea would keep the momentum of the dialogue.

Only a day after announcing the new talks, North Korea said it had test-fired a new ballistic missile designed for submarine launch, underscoring the need for Washington to move quickly to negotiate limits on Pyongyang’s growing arsenal.

Speaking in Athens on a tour of southern Europe while the talks were still underway, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had said he was hopeful of progress.

“We are mindful this will be the first time that we’ve had a chance to have a discussion in quite some time and that there remains to be a lot of work that will have to be done by the two teams,” he told a news conference.

(Reporting by Anna Ringstrom, Johan Ahlander, Simon Johnson, Niklas Pollard and Philip O’Connor in Stockholm; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom and Michele Kambas in Athens, Joori Roh and Ju-min Park in Seoul, Andrea Shalal and Julia Harte in Washington, Huizhong Wu and Hallie Gu in Beijing; Writing by Niklas Pollard; Editing by Clarence Fernandez; Editing by Christopher Cushing)

North Korea fires ballistic missile, possibly from submarine, days before talks

By Joyce Lee and Chang-Ran Kim

SEOUL/TOKYO (Reuters) – North Korea fired what may have been a submarine-launched ballistic missile from off its east coast on Wednesday, a day after it announced the resumption of talks with the United States on ending its nuclear program.

If confirmed, it would be the most provocative test by North Korea since it started the talks with the United States in 2018. Analysts said it was likely a reminder by Pyongyang of the weapons capability it had been aggressively developing as it gears up for the new round of talks.

A State Department spokeswoman called on Pyongyang to “refrain from provocations” and remain committed to the nuclear negotiations.

South Korea’s military said it had detected the launch of one missile that flew 450 km (280 miles) and reached an altitude of 910 km (565 miles). It was likely a Pukguksong-class weapon, as the North’s earlier submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) under development were known.

South Korean Defence Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo told a parliamentary committee that the Pukguksong, or Pole Star in Korean, has a range of about 1,300 km (910 miles) and that the missile’s trajectory may have been raised to reduce the distance it traveled.

CNN, citing a U.S. official, said that the missile was launched from an underwater platform, which North Korea has previously done at the early stage of the SLBM program in 2015.

South Korea expressed concern and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe condemned the launch, saying it was a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

North Korea rejects U.N. Security Council resolutions that ban Pyongyang from using ballistic missile technology, saying they are an infringement of its right to self-defense.

Talks aimed at dismantling North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs have been stalled since a second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Vietnam in February ended without a deal.

The two leaders then met at the Demilitarized Zone border between the two Koreas in June and pledged to reopen working-level talks within weeks.

SEA LAUNCH

South Korea’s military said the missile was launched eastward from the sea northeast of Wonsan, the site of one of North Korea’s military bases on the east coast.

Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said it appeared that one missile was launched and had split in two and then fallen into the sea. The Japanese government had said earlier it appeared North Korea had launched two missiles, one of which fell inside Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

South Korea’s Jeong, asked about Japan’s earlier assessment of two missiles, said the missile might have had at least two stages that separated in flight.

North Korea had been developing SLBM technology before it suspended long-range missile and nuclear tests and began talks with the United States that led to the first summit between Kim and Trump in Singapore in June 2018.

State news agency KCNA released photos and a report of leader Kim Jong Un in July inspecting a large, newly built submarine, seen as a potential signal that Pyongyang was continuing with its development of an SLBM program.

The latest missile launch was the ninth since Trump and Kim met in June, but the others have been of short-range land-based missiles.

David Wright, missile expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists, put the range of the missile tested on Wednesday at about 1,900 km (1,200 miles) at standard trajectory.

Hours before Wednesday’s launch, North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui said in a statement the working-level talks with the United States would be held on Saturday – a development that could potentially break what had been months of stalemate.

North Korea’s previous missile launch was on Sept. 10, also hours after Choe had expressed Pyongyang’s willingness for talks with the United States.

Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said: “North Korea tends to raise the stakes before negotiations in an effort to win unearned concessions.”

Trump has played down North Korea’s recent series of short-range launches, saying in September the United States and North Korea “didn’t have an agreement on short-range missiles” and that many countries test such weapons.

Vipin Narang, a nuclear expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the timing of the latest launch enhances leverage for the North and also signals Pyongyang is in for the long haul in its talks with Washington.

“The risk is that testing such a system causes the U.S. to walk away before this weekend, but Kim probably bet that the U.S. is so invested in the talks taking place and making progress … that the U.S. won’t walk away.”

(Reporting by Joyce Lee, Josh Smith and Chang-Ran Kim; Additional reporting by Linda Sieg, Kiyoshi Takenaka, Chris Gallagher and David Dolan in Tokyo, and Eric Beech in Washington; Writing by Jack Kim; Editing by Paul Tait and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Iranian president says U.S. offered to remove all sanctions on Iran in exchange for talks

FILE PHOTO: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani gestures at the conclusion of his address to the 69th United Nations General Assembly at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, September 25, 2014. REUTERS/Mike Segar/File Photo

By Babak Dehghanpisheh

GENEVA (Reuters) – The United States offered to remove all sanctions on Iran in exchange for talks but Tehran has not yet accepted the offer due to the current “toxic atmosphere”, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Friday.

Rouhani, speaking on his return from the United Nations General Assembly in New York, said he met there with U.S. officials at the insistence of Germany, Britain and France.

“It was up for debate what sanctions will be lifted and they (the United States) had said clearly that we will lift all sanctions,” Rouhani said, according to his official website.

Iran was ready for negotiations but not in an atmosphere of sanctions and pressure, the Iranian president said.

“This action wasn’t in a manner that was acceptable, meaning that in the atmosphere of sanctions and the existence of sanctions and the toxic atmosphere of maximum pressure, even if we want to negotiate with the Americans in the 5+1 framework, no one can predict what the end and result of this negotiation will be,” he said.

Crude slipped on the report, adding to earlier losses caused by a faster-than-expected recovery in Saudi output, slowing Chinese economic growth, a Wall Street Journal report saying that Saudi Arabia had agreed a partial ceasefire in Yemen. Brent crude was trading below $62 a barrel. [O/R]

Rouhani did not meet U.S. President Donald Trump in New York and European and Gulf officials expect Washington to keep tightening the vice on Iran’s economy.

The United States and Iran are at odds over a host of issues, including the U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, U.S. accusations – denied by Tehran – that Iran attacked two Saudi oil facilities on Sept. 14, and Iran’s detention of U.S. citizens on what the United States regards as spurious grounds.

(Reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh; Editing by Angus MacSwan)