Pompeo discusses Iran with Gulf allies amid escalating crisis

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz at Al Salam Palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia June 24, 2019. Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via REUTERS

By Stephen Kalin

RIYADH (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo discussed Iran and maritime security with rich Gulf Arab allies during a trip to the region on Monday after President Donald Trump called off a military strike to retaliate for Tehran’s downing of a U.S. drone.

Pompeo met with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and had lunch with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman before proceeding to the United Arab Emirates for talks with Abu Dhabi’s crown prince.

The discussions covered protection for ships in the Gulf, after attacks on tankers in recent weeks which Washington has blamed on Iran: “Freedom of navigation is paramount,” Pompeo tweeted from the Saudi city of Jeddah.

He thanked King Salman for meeting on “such short notice”, an apparent sign of how quickly the United States has mobilized diplomatic efforts as the confrontation escalates.

The Saudi media ministry said Pompeo and Prince Mohammed reiterated that the “two countries stand side by side in confronting the hostile Iranian activities and in combating terrorism.”

Relations between longtime foes Iran and the United States have deteriorated since Trump withdrew Washington a year ago from a 2015 accord that curbed Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for easing sanctions.

Tensions have flared following the attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf, Iran’s downing of the drone last week, and repeated attacks on Saudi airports and oil installations by Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthis.

Iran said on Monday that U.S. cyber attacks on its military had failed, while hinting that it could be willing to discuss new concessions if the United States were to lift sanctions and offer new incentives.

Washington and Riyadh have publicly accused Tehran of being behind the tanker attacks near the Strait of Hormuz. Iran has denied involvement. The United States has protected the waterway for decades with its naval Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain.

Trump said on Monday that other countries, including China and Japan, should protect their own ships there.

There was no immediate indication that Pompeo had raised with Saudi leaders the killing of U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate.

A U.N. report last week called for the crown prince and other senior officials to be investigated given credible evidence against them.

The Trump administration is pressing the Saudis to show progress toward holding to account those behind the killing.

Trump told NBC on Sunday he did not discuss the murder in a recent phone call with the crown prince. Asked if the FBI should investigate, he responded: “I think it’s been heavily investigated.”

The murder tarnished the crown prince’s international standing. The CIA and some Western countries believe he ordered the killing, which Saudi officials deny.

(Reporting By Stephen Kalin in Riyadh and Maha El Dahan and Sylvia Westall in Dubai; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Peter Graff)

Why U.S.-Iran tensions could quickly escalate into a crisis

FILE PHOTO: A Iranian Revolutionary Guard boat is seen near the U.S. aircraft carrier USS George H. W. Bush in the Strait of Hormuz as U.S. Navy helicopters hover nearby on March 21, 2017. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed/File Photo/File Photo

By Phil Stewart and Michelle Nichols

WASHINGTON/UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – Three years ago, when Iran’s military captured 10 U.S.sailors after they mistakenly strayed into Iranian waters, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif jumped on the phone in minutes and worked out the sailors’ release in hours.

Could a similar crisis be so quickly resolved today?

“No, Zarif said in a recent interview with Reuters. “How could it be averted?”

Zarif and the current Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, have never spoken directly, according to Iran’s mission at the United Nations. They instead tend to communicate through name-calling on Twitter or through the media.

“Pompeo makes sure that every time he talks about Iran, he insults me,” Zarif said.  “Why should I even answer his phone call?”

The open rancor between the nations’ two top diplomats underscores growing concern that the lack of any established channel for direct negotiation makes a military confrontation more likely in the event of a misunderstanding or a mishap, according to current and former U.S. officials, foreign diplomats, U.S. lawmakers and foreign policy experts.

The Trump administration this month ordered the deployment of an aircraft carrier strike group, bombers and Patriot missiles to the Middle East, citing intelligence about possible Iranian preparations to attack U.S. forces or interests.

“The danger of an accidental conflict seems to be increasing over each day,” U.S. Senator Angus King, a political independent from Maine, told Reuters as he called for direct dialogue between the United States and Iran.

A senior European diplomat said it was vital for top U.S. and Iranian officials to be on “speaking terms” to prevent an incident from mushrooming into a crisis.

“I hope that there are some channels still existing so we don’t sleepwalk into a situation that nobody wants,” said the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The rhetoric that we have is alarming.”

State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus declined to address how the administration would communicate with Iran in a crisis similar to the 2016 incident, but said:  “When the time to talk comes, we are confident we will have every means to do so.”

The administration’s “maximum pressure campaign” against Iran, she said, aims to force its leaders to the negotiating table.

“If the Iranians are willing to engage on changing their ways to behave like a normal nation,” Ortagus said, “we are willing to talk to them.”

TWITTER DIPLOMACY

In 2016, Kerry and Zarif knew one another well from the complex negotiations to reach a 2015 pact to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

Three years later, top-level diplomatic relations have all but disintegrated in the wake of the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the nuclear pact, its tightening of sanctions on Iranian oil, and its recent move to designate part of Iran’s military as a terrorist group.

U.S. military officials cite growing concern about Iran’s development of precise missiles and its support for proxy forces in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and beyond.

In the absence of direct talks, Twitter has become a common forum for U.S. and Iranian officials to trade biting barbs. On Wednesday, an advisor to Iranian president Hassan Rouhani fired off a tweet at Pompeo castigating him for provoking Iran with military deployments.

“You @SecPompeo do not bring warships to our region and call it deterrence. That’s called provocation,” the advisor, Hesameddin Ashena, tweeted in English. “It compels Iran to illustrate its own deterrence, which you call provocation. You see the cycle?”

That followed a Trump tweet on Sunday threatening to “end” Iran if it sought a fight, and a long history of bitter insults traded by Pompeo and Zarif.

Pompeo in February called Zarif and Iran’s president “front men for a corrupt religious mafia” in a tweet. That same month, another official at Pompeo’s State Department tweeted: “How do you know @JZarif is lying? His lips are moving.”

Zarif, in turn, has used the social media platform to condemn Pompeo and White House National Security Adviser John Bolton’s “pure obsession with Iran,” calling it “the behavior of persistently failing psychotic stalkers.”

‘AMERICANS HAVE OPTIONS’

U.S. officials, diplomats and lawmakers said they doubted Zarif would refuse to take a call from Pompeo in a crisis, given the risks for Iran in any conflict with the U.S. military.

In a Tuesday briefing with reporters, Pompeo appeared to dismiss concerns about Washington’s ability to communicate and negotiate with Iran.

“There are plenty of ways that we can have a communication channel,” Pompeo said.

Diplomats say Oman, Switzerland and Iraq are nations with ties to both countries that could pass messages.

“It’s a little bit like the Israelis – when they need to get messages to people, they can get messages to people,” said a second senior European diplomat.

Representative Michael Waltz – the first U.S. Army Green Beret elected to Congress, said he favored the diplomatic freeze as a way to force Iran into serious negotiations.

“If you don’t have diplomatic isolation, you’re having one-off talks, that lessens the pressure,” said Waltz, who is also a former Pentagon official.

But indirect message-passing can be too cumbersome in a fast-moving crisis, said Kevin Donegan, a retired vice admiral who oversaw U.S. naval forces in the Middle East as commander of the Fifth Fleet when the U.S. sailors were captured by Iran.

Such dealings through intermediaries “require time and will not allow an opportunity to de-escalate a rapidly unfolding tactical situation,” said Donegan, now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who added that he was not commenting on current U.S. policy.

Donegan and Waltz both said it would be helpful to have some kind of hotline between the U.S. and Iranian militaries, but Donegan and other experts were skeptical Iran would agree to such an arrangement.

BACK CHANNELS THROUGH OMAN, IRAQ & RUSSIA?

On May 3 – after Washington became alarmed by intelligence indicating that Iran might be preparing for an attack on the United States or its interests – it sent messages to Iran via “a third party,” one U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also told Congress on May 8 that messages had been sent to “to make sure that it was clear to Iran that we recognized the threat and we were postured to respond.”

Waltz said Dunford told lawmakers at a closed-door hearing that he had sent a message to Qassem Soleimani – the influential commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force – warning him that Iran would be held directly accountable if one of its proxy forces attacks Americans.

“The message now was: ‘We’re not going to hold your proxies accountable'” if they attack U.S. citizens or forces in the region, he said. “‘We’re going to hold you, the regime, accountable.'”

Another official said the United States had authorized Iraq “to let the Iranians know that there is no plausible deniability about attacks on Americans in Iraq” after U.S. intelligence flagged preparations for a possible attack by Iran-backed militias in Iraq.

Joseph Votel, the now retired four-star general who oversaw U.S. troops in the Middle East until March, noted earlier this year that the U.S. military might be able to indirectly get a message to Iranian forces through an existing hotline with Russia meant to avoid accidental conflicts in Syria.

“The Iranians can talk to the Russians,” he said.  “We have a well-established professional communication channel with the Russians.”

But the prospect of relying on the Russian government to get United States out of a crisis with Iran is hardly reassuring to many current and former officials in the United States.

“That would be a risky choice,” said Wendy Sherman, an undersecretary of state in the Obama administration.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Michelle Nichols; Editing by Brian Thevenot)

Britain warns of Iran-U.S. conflict, Pompeo meets Europeans

FILE PHOTO: The Iranian flag flutters in front the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) headquarters in Vienna, Austria March 4, 2019. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger/File Photo

By Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Iran and the United States could trigger a conflict by accident in an already unstable Gulf region, Britain’s foreign minister said on Monday, as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held talks in Brussels with the main European powers on the crisis.

President Donald Trump is seeking to isolate Tehran by cutting off its oil exports after pulling out of a 2015 deal aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear program. Trump has also beefed up the U.S. military presence in the Gulf to pressure Iran.

While the European Union shares some U.S. concerns about Iran, including over its involvement in the Syrian conflict, it still backs the 2015 nuclear deal, saying that it is in Europe’s own security interests.

“We are very worried about a conflict, about the risk of a conflict … of an escalation that is unintended,” Britain’s Jeremy Hunt told reporters in Brussels ahead of the talks with Pompeo.

Britain, Germany and France are signatories to the 2015 deal and their foreign ministers were holding separate meetings in Brussels on Monday with Pompeo, who canceled a planned stopover in Moscow in order to brief the European allies on Washington’s latest moves.

Trump, who wants to force Tehran to agree a broader arms control accord, has sent an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the Gulf in a show of force against what U.S. officials have said is a threat to U.S. troops in the region.

Iran says the strategy amounts to “psychological warfare” and a senior Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander on Sunday said Iran would retaliate to any aggressive U.S. moves.

“TAKING DIFFERENT COURSES”

The U.S. State Department billed Monday’s talks in Brussels as a chance “to discuss recent threatening actions and statements” by Iran.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said he had told Pompeo during their Monday meeting: “We do not want it to come to a military conflict (between the United States and Iran).”

Maas avoided any public criticism of Washington, saying both sides wanted to ensure peace in the Middle East. But he said it was clear that Europe and the United States were “going about it in different ways … taking different courses.”

Before his meeting with Pompeo, France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian urged Europeans to remain united in support of the nuclear deal, which was signed by the United States, Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia, and which the European Union helped to negotiate.

For Europe, the tensions with the Trump administration mark a deepening split in transatlantic ties that were traditionally marked by close coordination on Middle East policy, despite sharp disagreements over the 2003 Iraq war.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned last week that Tehran could resume enrichment at a higher grade if the European powers, China and Russia did not do more to circumvent punitive U.S. measures on banking and energy to boost trade.

Hunt, who held talks with Maas and Le Drian on the margins of a regular EU meeting in Brussels, expressed concern about the risks of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East if Iran were to acquire such weapons.

“We need to make sure that we don’t end up putting Iran back on the path to re-nuclearization,” Hunt said, calling for “a period of calm so that everyone understands what the other side is thinking”.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the EU would continue to support the nuclear pact because Iran continued to comply with inspections and uranium production limits.

The EU is trying to implement a new channel to allow Iran to sell its oil and circumvent newly-instated U.S. sanctions, but setting it up is proving complex.

Spain’s Foreign Minister Josep Borrell said Madrid was considering joining the special trade channel, known as INSTEX, which so far counts France, Germany and Britain as shareholders and could be operational by the end of June.

(Additional reporting by Francesco Guarascio and Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Turkey says buying Russian defense system should not trigger U.S. sanctions

FILE PHOTO: New S-400 "Triumph" surface-to-air missile system after its deployment at a military base outside the town of Gvardeysk near Kaliningrad, Russia. Picture taken March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Vitaly Nevar/File Photo/File Photo

By Humeyra Pamuk

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Turkey’s purchase of a Russian air defense missile system should not trigger U.S. sanctions because Ankara is not an adversary of Washington and remains committed to the NATO alliance, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said on Monday.

Speaking at a U.S.-Turkey conference in Washington amid rising tensions between the two NATO allies over Ankara’s plan to buy the Russian S-400 missile system, Akar adopted a relatively conciliatory tone and urged to resolve issues via dialogue.

“Turkey is clearly not an adversary of the United States,” Akar said and added that therefore its procurement of the S-400 system should not be considered within the scope of U.S. sanctions designed to target America’s enemies.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last week that Washington had told Ankara it could face retribution for buying the S-400s under a sanctions law known as Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CATSAA).

“This procurement decision does not signify a change in Turkey’s course. I’d like to reiterate strongly that there is no change in Turkey’s commitment to NATO,” Akar said.

FILE PHOTO: A Lockheed Martin F-35 aircraft at the ILA Air Show in Berlin, Germany, April 25, 2018. REUTERS/Axel Schmidt/File Photo/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A Lockheed Martin F-35 aircraft at the ILA Air Show in Berlin, Germany, April 25, 2018. REUTERS/Axel Schmidt/File Photo/File Photo

The disagreement over the F-35 is the latest of a series of diplomatic disputes between the United States and Turkey including Turkish demands that the United States extradite Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, differences over Middle East policy and the war in Syria, and sanctions on Iran.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has refused to back down from Ankara’s planned purchase of a Russian S-400 missile defense system that the United States has said would compromise the security of F-35 aircraft, made by Lockheed Martin Corp . Turkey has said it will take delivery of the S-400s in July.

In early April, the United States halted delivery of equipment related to the stealthy F-35 fighter aircraft to Turkey, marking the first concrete U.S. step to potentially blocking the delivery of the jet to the NATO ally.

Akar said Turkey was puzzled by the move and expected U.S. and other partners in the program to fulfill their obligations.

“We firmly believe that linking the S-400 to the F-35 project is unfortunate … We are one of the investors and partners and not just a buyer. We have invested over $1 billion … and fulfilled all our obligations,” he said.

Akar repeated Turkey’s offer to hold technical talks with the United States to address “technical concerns” over the S-400 purchase.

Turkey is also assessing a renewed offer from the United States to buy Patriot missile defense systems, Akar added.

“Recently we received the restated offer for the Patriots. This offer is now on the table, we are studying it carefully,” he said.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Additional reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun in Istanbul; Editing by Dominic Evans and Phil Berlowitz)

Pompeo urges NATO allies to adapt to new threats from Russia, China

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (3rd L) speaks at the meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Foreign Ministers at the State Department in Washington, U.S., April 4, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

By Lesley Wroughton and David Brunnstrom

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday called on NATO allies to adapt to confront a wide variety of emerging threats, including Russia’s increased aggression, Chinese strategic competition and uncontrolled migration.

Pompeo made the call at the start of a meeting of North Atlantic Treaty Organization foreign ministers in Washington marking the 70th anniversary of the transatlantic military alliance.

“We must adapt our alliance to confront emerging threats … whether that’s Russian aggression, uncontrolled migration, cyber attacks, threats to energy security, Chinese strategic competition, including technology and 5G, and many other issues,” Pompeo said.

In a 2018 strategy document, the U.S. military put countering China and Russia at the heart of a new national defense strategy.

The meeting’s first session focused on ways to deter Russia, including in the Black Sea where it seized three Ukrainian naval vessels last year.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg called on Moscow to release the ships and their crews.

He said Russia’s breach of the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty was part of a “pattern of destabilizing behavior.”

Washington has said it will withdraw from the treaty this summer unless Moscow ends its alleged violations of the pact, which rid Europe of land-based nuclear missiles.

“We will not mirror what Russia is doing,” said Stoltenberg. “We will be measured and coordinated, and we have no intention of deploying ground-launched nuclear missiles in Europe.”

In his remarks, Pompeo said NATO should also confront increased cyber warfare, including from China.

Washington has warned it will not partner with countries that adopt China’s Huawei Technologies systems but has been at odds on the issue with the European Union, which has shunned U.S. calls to ban the company across the bloc. The bulk of NATO members are EU countries.

Huawei is under scrutiny from Western intelligence agencies for its perceived ties to China’s government and the possibility its equipment could be used for espionage. Huawei has repeatedly denied engaging in intelligence work for any government.

The United States has also been at odds with European countries over the failure of many of them to meet NATO defense spending guidelines of 2% of GDP.

Stoltenberg told reporters that NATO allies should commit to increased defense spending to improve burden-sharing in NATO.

“All NATO allies made a pledge to invest more in defense to improve burden sharing in our alliance, and I expect all allies, including Germany, of course, to make good on the pledge we made together,” the NATO secretary general said.

U.S. President Donald Trump has called on NATO countries to pay even more than 2% of their gross domestic product for defense. He told NATO leaders last year to increase defense spending to 4% of GDP. He said the United States pays 4.3% of its GDP to NATO.

Trump has singled out Germany for not doing enough.

Stoltenberg said Germany was now making progress, but all allies needed to do more.

“We didn’t make this pledge to please the United States. We made it because we live in a more unpredictable and uncertain world,” Stoltenberg said.

The NATO chief said disagreement between NATO members Turkey and the United States over Turkey’s plan to buy S-400 missile defense systems from Russia was not part of the formal agenda of the Washington meeting but would be discussed on the margins.

The United States has halted delivery of equipment related to its advanced F-35 fighter jets to Turkey over its S-400 plans.

The United States says Turkey’s purchase of the Russian air defense system would compromise the security of F-35 aircraft, which is built by Lockheed Martin Corp and uses stealth technology.

(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton and David Brunnstrom; editing by Jonathan Oatis and James Dalgleish)

Venezuela detains top aide to Guaido in move U.S. calls ‘big mistake’

Personal belongings are seen on the floor at the residence of Roberto Marrero, chief of staff to opposition leader Juan Guaido, after he was detained by Venezuelan intelligence agents, according to legislators, in Caracas, Venezuela March 21, 2019. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

By Vivian Sequera and Angus Berwick

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido said on Thursday intelligence agents had detained his chief of staff during a pre-dawn raid, a move by President Nicolas Maduro that the Trump administration said would “not go unanswered.”

Guaido invoked the constitution in January to assume the interim presidency after declaring Maduro’s 2018 re-election a fraud. He has been recognized by the United States and dozens of other Western nations as the country’s legitimate leader.

Maduro, who has overseen a dramatic collapse of the OPEC nation’s economy, has called Guaido a puppet of the United States and said he should “face justice,” but has not explicitly ordered his arrest.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, called for the immediate release of Roberto Marrero. “Maduro has made another big mistake,” Bolton said on Twitter.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had said earlier on Thursday that “we will hold accountable those involved.”

Top U.S. officials have repeatedly warned Maduro not to touch Guaido and his inner circle, but it is unclear what more they can do.

They have threatened ever harsher sanctions intended to further isolate Maduro and cut off his administration’s sources of revenue, but the humanitarian and political costs of further blanket measures could be high. Millions of Venezuelans are already suffering shortages of food and medicine.

Guaido said the raids by agents from the SEBIN intelligence service on the residences of Marrero and another opposition legislator, Sergio Vergara, showed Maduro’s “weakness” and that attempts to intimidate him would not derail the opposition campaign.

“As they cannot take the interim president prisoner, so they seek out people closest to him, threaten relatives, carry out kidnappings,” Guaido told a news conference.

Marrero recorded a voice message as SEBIN agents were trying to enter his home in Caracas’ upscale Las Mercedes neighborhood, which Guaido’s press team forwarded to reporters.

“I am in my house and the SEBIN is here. Unfortunately, they have come for me. Keep up the fight, don’t stop and look after (Guaido),” Marrero said.

Vergara, Marrero’s neighbor, said some 40 armed SEBIN agents forced their way into their homes and spent three hours inside. The SEBIN left with Marrero and Vergara’s driver, the legislator said in a video posted on his Twitter account.

Guaido said that Marrero had told Vergara that agents had planted two rifles and a grenade in his house.

Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“HELD TO ACCOUNT”

Since January, Venezuelan authorities have arrested over 1,000 people in connection with anti-government demonstrations, most of them arbitrarily, rights groups say.

United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said on Wednesday that Venezuelan security forces, backed by pro-government militias, have quashed peaceful protests with excessive use of force, killings and torture.

On Thursday, the UN human rights office tweeted its concern over Marrero’s detention and urged the government to respect due process and reveal his whereabouts. The Lima Group regional bloc also denounced Marrero’s arrest and said Maduro was responsible for his safety.

Maduro has said his government is the victim of an “economic war” led by his political adversaries and blames U.S. financial and oil sector sanctions for the country’s situation.

Venezuela is reeling from annual inflation topping 2 million percent, which has fueled malnutrition and preventable disease and spurred an exodus of more than 3 million citizens since 2015.

While Trump has said all options remain open, there appears to be little support in Washington or regional Latin American capitals for any military intervention.

Guaido traveled around South America in February to drum up diplomatic support, defying a travel ban imposed by the pro-government Supreme Court.

He later entered the country via Venezuela’s principal airport without being detained by immigration officials.

Venezuela’s chief state prosecutor, Tarek Saab, last week asked the Supreme Court to open an investigation into Guaido for alleged involvement in the “sabotage” of the country’s electrical network, after the longest nationwide power blackout in decades.

The opposition, along with electrical experts, said the power outage was due to the government’s incompetence and years without maintenance.

(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth and Vivian Sequera; Additional reporting by Corina Pons in Caracas, Susan Heavey in Washington, and Hugh Bronstein in Buenos Aires; Writing by Angus Berwick; Editing by Daniel Flynn, Bernadette Baum and Rosalba O’Brien)

North Korea may suspend nuclear talks with ‘gangster-like’ U.S.: diplomat

FILE PHOTO: Hyon Song Wol, head of the North Korean Samjiyon art troupe takes a photo of Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Choe Son-Hui (C) ahead of the welcoming ceremony of North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un (not pictured) at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi, Vietnam March 1, 2019. Luong Thai Linh/Pool via REUTERS

By Joyce Lee and Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea is considering suspending talks with the United States and may rethink a ban on missile and nuclear tests unless Washington makes concessions, a senior diplomat said on Friday, according to news reports from the North’s capital.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in Washington the United States wished to continue talks with North Korea and had “every expectation” that its leader, Kim Jong Un, would stick to pledges not to resume nuclear and missile testing.

North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui blamed top U.S. officials for the breakdown of last month’s summit in Hanoi between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump, Russia’s TASS news agency and the Associated Press reported.

“We have no intention to yield to the U.S. demands (at the Hanoi summit) in any form, nor are we willing to engage in negotiations of this kind,” TASS quoted Choe as telling reporters in the North Korean capital.

Choe said Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton “created the atmosphere of hostility and mistrust and, therefore, obstructed the constructive effort for negotiations between the supreme leaders of North Korea and the United States”, TASS quoted Choe as saying.

Kim is set to make an official announcement soon on his position on the denuclearization talks with the United States and the North’s further actions, TASS added, citing Choe.

Choe said Washington threw away a golden opportunity at the summit and warned that Kim might rethink a moratorium on missile launches and nuclear tests, the AP reported.

“I want to make it clear that the gangster-like stand of the U.S. will eventually put the situation in danger,” AP quoted Choe as saying.

But, she added: “Personal relations between the two supreme leaders are still good and the chemistry is mysteriously wonderful.”

Bolton told reporters outside the White House that he had seen the statement from the North Korean official and that “I think that’s inaccurate.” He said he had spoken to his South Korean counterpart but wanted to consult with other U.S. officials before responding further.

U.S. SEEKS MORE ‘CONVERSATIONS’ WITH NORTH

Pompeo told reporters it was not the first time he had been called “gangster-like” by North Korea. “And following that we continued to have very professional conversations … I have every expectation we will be able to continue to do that,” he said.

Pompeo said he had seen Choe’s remarks, and she had left open the possibility that negotiations would continue.

“It’s the administration’s desire that we continue to have conversations around this,” Pompeo said. “As the president said when he was in Hanoi, the offer that they made simply didn’t rise to the level that was acceptable, given what they were asking for in exchange.”

Kim had committed multiple times to Trump in Hanoi that he would not to resume nuclear or missile testing, Pompeo said. “That’s Chairman Kim’s word. We have every expectation he will live up to that commitment.”

South Korea, which has an ambitious agenda of engagement with North Korea that is dependent on Pyongyang and Washington resolving at least some of their differences, said it was too early to tell what Choe’s comments might mean.

“We cannot judge the current situation based solely on Vice Minister Choe Son Hui’s statements. We are watching the situation closely. In any situation, our government will endeavor for the restart of North Korea-U.S. negotiations,” South Korea’s presidential Blue House said in a statement.

Choe’s comments echoed the North’s usual rhetoric at tense points in its dealings with Washington. North Korea expert Joshua Pollack said North Korea may be delivering an ultimatum.

“They’re putting down a marker, saying which way things are headed if nothing changes,” Pollack, of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California, said.

Joel Wit of the 38 North think tank said North Korea was likely toughening its negotiating position after the collapse of the Hanoi summit. “It is likely to gauge the U.S. reaction in the days ahead before making a decision to launch a rocket,” he said.

The second Trump-Kim summit broke down over differences about U.S. demands for Pyongyang to denuclearize and North Korea’s demand for dramatic relief from international sanctions imposed for its nuclear and missile tests, which it pursued for years in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Choe had said after the Hanoi talks that Kim might lose his commitment to pursue a deal with the United States after seeing it reject a request to lift some sanctions in return for the North destroying its main known nuclear complex.

In Beijing, Premier Li Keqiang urged patience and further dialogue between North Korea and the United States.

Earlier on Friday, a spokeswoman for South Korea’s Ministry of Unification told a press briefing that the weekly inter-Korean meeting scheduled at a liaison office in Kaesong, North Korea, had been canceled after the North Koreans said they would not be sending senior officials.

The spokeswoman said the ministry had not confirmed why the North Korean officials decided not to attend.

(Reporting by Joyce Lee and Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Choonsik Yoo, Ju-min Park, Joori Roh and Doina Chiacu, David Brunnstrom and Susan Heavey in Washington; Writing by Jack Kim; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Nick Macfie and Jeffrey Benkoe)

U.S. says China’s treatment of Muslim minority worst abuses ‘since the 1930s’

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to the media at the Department of Foreign Affairs in Pasay City, Metro Manila, Philippines, March 1, 2019. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez

By Lesley Wroughton and David Brunnstrom

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. State Department on Wednesday slammed human rights violations in China, saying the sort of abuses it had inflicted on its Muslim minorities had not been seen “since the 1930s.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo highlighted abuses in Iran, South Sudan, Nicaragua and China in the department’s annual “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices,” but told reporters that China was “in a league of its own when it comes to human rights violations.”

“For me, you haven’t seen things like this since the 1930s,” Michael Kozak, the head of the State Department’s human rights and democracy bureau told the same briefing, referring to abuses of China’s Muslim minority.

“Rounding up, in some estimations … in the millions of people, putting them into camps, and torturing them, abusing them, and trying to basically erase their culture and their religion and so on from their DNA. It’s just remarkably awful.”

Kozak said China had initially denied there even were camps, and is now saying “there are camps, but they’re some kind of labor training camps and it’s all very voluntary.”

The governor of Xinjiang said on Tuesday that China is running boarding schools, not concentration camps, in the far western region of China. The vast area bordering Central Asia is home to millions of Uighurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities.

“That does not match the facts that we and others are saying, but at least we’re starting to make them realize there is a lot of international scrutiny on this,” Kozak said, adding: “It is one of the most serious human rights violations in the world today.”

The report said that in the past year, the Chinese government had significantly intensified its campaign of mass detention of members of Muslim minority groups in the Xinjiang region.

It said authorities there were reported to have arbitrarily detained 800,000 to possibly more than two million Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs and other Muslims in internment camps designed to erase religious and ethnic identities.

A perimeter fence is constructed around what is officially known as a vocational skills education centre in Dabancheng in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China September 4, 2018. This centre, situated between regional capital Urumqi and tourist spot Turpan, is among the largest known ones, and was still undergoing extensive construction and expansion at the time the photo was taken. Police in Dabancheng detained two Reuters journalists for more than four hours after the photos were taken. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

A perimeter fence is constructed around what is officially known as a vocational skills education centre in Dabancheng in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China September 4, 2018. This centre, situated between regional capital Urumqi and tourist spot Turpan, is among the largest known ones, and was still undergoing extensive construction and expansion at the time the photo was taken. Police in Dabancheng detained two Reuters journalists for more than four hours after the photos were taken. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

The State Department report said government officials in China had claimed the camps were needed to combat terrorism, separatism and extremism. However, international media, human rights organizations and former detainees have reported that security officials in the camps abused, tortured and killed some detainees, it said.

Pompeo also said the Iranian government had killed more than 20 people and arrested thousands without due process for protesting for their rights “continuing a pattern of cruelty the regime has inflicted on the Iranian people for the last four decades.”

In South Sudan, he said that military forces inflicted sexual violence against civilians based on their political allegiances and ethnicity, while in Nicaragua, peaceful protesters had faced sniper fire and government critics had “faced a policy of exile, jail or death.”

The report also revised its usual description of the Golan Heights from “Israeli-occupied” to “Israeli-controlled.”

A separate section on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, areas that Israel captured along with the Golan Heights in a 1967 war in the Middle East, also did not refer to those territories as being “occupied,” or under “occupation.”

(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton and David Brunnstrom; editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Paul Simao and G Crosse)

Pompeo says China trade deal has ‘got to be right’: interview

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to the media at the Department of Foreign Affairs in Pasay City, Metro Manila, Philippines, March 1, 2019. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Trump will reject a U.S.-China trade deal that is not perfect, but the United States would still keep working on an agreement, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a media interview.

“Things are in a good place, but it’s got to be right,” Pompeo told Sinclair Broadcasting Group, according to a transcript released by the State Department on Tuesday.

Asked if Trump would walk away from any deal that was not perfect, Pompeo said, “Yes” and pointed to the Republican president’s rejection of an agreement with North Korea at a summit last week in Hanoi.

Trump last week said that he was willing to abandon trade talks with China, but U.S. advisers in recent days have signaled more positive outcomes.

Pompeo made his remarks following stops in Iowa, where he was attending a conference for farmers, who have been caught up in the ongoing trade war with the world’s top two economies.

“This has to work for America. If it doesn’t work, we’ll keep banging away at it. We’re going to get to the right outcome. I’m confident that we will,” Pompeo told Sinclair.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

U.S. suspends compliance on weapons treaty with Russia, may withdraw in six months

FILE PHOTO: Components of SSC-8/9M729 cruise missile system are on display during a news briefing, organized by Russian defence and foreign ministries, at Patriot Expocentre near Moscow, Russia January 23, 2019. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/File Photo

By Lesley Wroughton and Arshad Mohammed

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States will suspend compliance with the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia on Saturday and formally withdraw in six months if Moscow does not end its alleged violation of the pact, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Friday.

The United States would reconsider its withdrawal if Russia, which denies violating the landmark 1987 arms control pact, came into compliance with the treaty, which bans either side from stationing short- and intermediate-range, land-based missiles in Europe.

“Russia has refused to take any steps to return (to) real and verifiable compliance,” Pompeo told reporters at the State Department. “We will provide Russia and the other treaty parties with formal notice that the United States is withdrawing from the INF treaty, effective in six months.

“If Russia does not return to full and verifiable compliance with the treaty within this six-month period by verifiably destroying its INF-violating missiles, their launchers, and associated equipment, the treaty will terminate.”

The United States alleges a new Russian cruise missile violates the pact. The missile, the Novator 9M729, is known as the SSC-8 by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Russia says the missile’s range puts it outside the treaty, and has accused the United States of inventing a false pretext to exit a treaty that it wants to leave anyway so it can develop new missiles. Russia also has rejected a U.S. demand to destroy the new missile.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Friday the United States had been unwilling to discuss the issue.

A few hours before Pompeo’s announcement a statement from NATO said the alliance would “fully support” the U.S. withdrawal notice.

Some experts believe the collapse of the INF treaty could undermine other arms control agreements and speed an erosion of the global system designed to block the spread of nuclear arms.

European officials are especially worried about the treaty’s possible collapse, fearful that Europe could again become an arena for nuclear-armed, intermediate-range missile buildups by the United States and Russia.

Speaking before Pompeo’s announcement, German Chancellor Angela Merkel emphasized the importance of using the six-month window to keep talking.

“It is clear to us that Russia has violated this treaty …,” she said. “The important thing is to keep the window for dialogue open.”

Senator Bob Menendez, the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, accused Trump failing to grasp the importance of arms control treaties or of having a wider strategy to control the spread of nuclear weapons.

“Today’s withdrawal is yet another geo-strategic gift to (Russian President) Vladimir Putin,” he said in a statement.

(Reporting By Makini Brice, Susan Heavey, Arshad Mohammed and Lesley Wroughton; Writing by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Bill Trott)