Pompeo says Trump administration eager for end to Gulf rift

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pressed on Monday for a solution to the three-year rift between the Gulf state of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, saying the Trump administration was eager to see it resolved.

Speaking at a State Department meeting with Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, Pompeo said it was important to concentrate on countering Iranian activity in the Middle East.

“To keep our focus on this work and to close the door to increased Iranian meddling, it’s past time to find a solution to the Gulf rift,” Pompeo said.

“The Trump administration is eager to see this dispute resolved and to reopen Qatar’s air and land borders currently blocked by other Gulf states. I look forward to progress on this issue.”

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut diplomatic and trade links with Qatar in June 2017, accusing it of backing terrorism. Qatar denies the charge and has accused its neighbors of seeking to curtail its sovereignty.

Kuwait and the United States have tried to mediate the rift, which has undermined Washington’s efforts to confront Iran, which is struggling for regional supremacy with Saudi Arabia.

The boycotting nations have set 13 demands for lifting the boycott, including closing Al Jazeera television, shuttering a Turkish military base, reducing ties with Iran and cutting links to the Muslim Brotherhood.

The State Department’s top diplomat for the Middle East, David Schenker, said last week there could be some progress within weeks in resolving the rift, citing signs of “flexibility” in negotiations.

With Trump’s facing re-election on Nov. 3, he is eager to show foreign policy successes in the Middle East, and last month the UAE agreed to normalize ties with Israel under a U.S.-brokered deal scheduled to be signed at a White House ceremony on Tuesday. Bahrain joined the UAE in agreeing to normalize relations with Israel on Friday.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom and Daphne Psaledakis; Editing by Tom Brown)

Pompeo reassures Netanyahu U.S. will ensure Israel’s military advantage

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The United States will ensure Israel retains a military advantage in the Middle East under any future U.S. arms deals with the United Arab Emirates, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday.

“The United States has a legal requirement with respect to qualitative military edge. We will continue to honor that,” Pompeo told reporters after a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu said he had been reassured on the issue by Pompeo, who began a Middle East visit in Jerusalem that will showcase U.S. support for Israeli-Arab peace efforts and building a front against Iran. It will also include Sudan, the UAE and Bahrain.

A U.S.-brokered deal on normalizing relations between Israel and the UAE was announced on Aug. 13. But there has been some dissent in Israel over the prospect of the Gulf power now obtaining advanced U.S. weaponry such as the F-35 warplane.

Speaking on CNN on Saturday, senior White House adviser Jared Kushner said the UAE had been trying to get the F-35 for a long time.

“This new peace agreement should increase the probability of them getting it. But it’s something we’re reviewing,” he said.

Pompeo said Washington had provided the UAE with military support for more than 20 years, measures he described as needed to stave off shared threats from Iran – also Israel’s arch-foe.

“We’re deeply committed to doing that, to achieving that and we’ll do it in a way that preserves our commitment to Israel and I’m confident that objective will be achieved,” Pompeo said.

Bruised by the U.N. Security Council’s rejection of a U.S. draft resolution for extending an arms embargo on Iran, the Trump administration is seeking a “snapback” of U.N. sanctions that had been eased as part of a 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran.

“We are determined to use every tool that we have to ensure that they (Iran) can’t get access to high-end weapons systems,” Pompeo said. “We think it’s in the best interest of the whole world.”

The Palestinians warned the Trump administration against trying to sideline them in the Middle East diplomatic push.

“Recruiting Arabs to recognize Israel and open embassies does not make Israel a winner,” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said in an interview with Reuters. “You are putting the whole region in a lose-lose situation because you are designing the road for a forever conflict in the region.”

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Maayan Lubell and Angus MacSwan)

Pompeo likely to visit U.N. on Thursday in pursuit of sanctions on Iran: diplomats

By Michelle Nichols

NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will likely travel to New York on Thursday to seek a return of all U.N. sanctions on Iran and meet with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, diplomats and a U.N. official said.

To trigger a return of the sanctions, the United States will submit a complaint to the 15-member U.N. Security Council about Iran’s non-compliance with the nuclear deal, even though Washington quit the accord in 2018.

Pompeo will likely meet with Indonesia’s U.N. Ambassador Dian Triansyah Djani, the Security Council president for August, to submit the complaint, diplomats said. Pompeo is also due to meet with Guterres, a U.N. official said.

In response to what the United States calls its “maximum pressure” campaign – a bid to get Iran to negotiate a new deal – Tehran has breached several central limits of the 2015 deal, including on its stock of enriched uranium.

But diplomats say the sanctions snapback process will be tough and messy as Russia, China and other countries on the Security Council challenge the legality of the U.S. move given that Washington itself is no longer complying with what Trump called the “worst deal ever” and has imposed unilateral sanctions on Iran.

The United States had threatened to use the sanctions snapback provision in the nuclear deal after it lost a bid in the Security Council on Friday to extend an arms embargo on Tehran, which is due to expire in October.

Once Washington submits its complaint about Iran to the Security Council, the body has 30 days to adopt a resolution to extend sanctions relief for Tehran or else the measures will automatically snapback. Any attempt to extend the sanctions relief would be vetoed by the United States.

The U.S. mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

Economic clout makes China tougher challenge for U.S. than Soviet Union was – Pompeo

By Robert Muller

PRAGUE (Reuters) – China’s global economic power makes the communist country in some ways a more difficult foe to counter than the Soviet Union during the Cold War, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on a visit to the Czech Republic on Wednesday.

Pompeo called on countries around Europe to rally against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which he said leverages its economic might to exert its influence around the world.

“What’s happening now isn’t Cold War 2.0,” Pompeo said in a speech to the Czech Senate. “The challenge of resisting the CCP threat is in some ways much more difficult.”

“The CCP is already enmeshed in our economies, in our politics, in our societies in ways the Soviet Union never was.”

The Cold War reference came after China’s ambassador to London last month warned that the United States was picking a fight with Beijing ahead of the U.S. presidential election in November.

U.S.-China ties have quickly deteriorated this year over a range of issues including Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus; telecoms-equipment maker Huawei; China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea; and the clampdown on Hong Kong.

Pompeo’s visit to the Czech Republic, part of the Soviet bloc until the 1989 democratic Velvet Revolution, marked the first stop on a swing through the region to discuss cyber and energy security.

He used the occasion to swipe at both Russian and Chinese influence and lauded officials in the central European nation of 10.7 million who took on Beijing over the past year.

He cited the Czech Republic’s efforts to set security standards for the development of 5G telecommunications networks after a government watchdog warned about using equipment made by China’s Huawei.

Pompeo and Prime Minister Andrej Babis signed a declaration on 5G security in May, but the country has not made an outright decision to ban Huawei technology. Its President Milos Zeman has been promoting closer ties with China.

Pompeo also acknowledged the chairman of the Czech Senate Milan Vystrcil, who followed through on a plan by his deceased predecessor to visit Taiwan at the end of this month, a trip that has angered China.

Pompeo said some nations in Europe would take longer to wake up to the threats, but there was a positive momentum.

“The tide has turned (in the United States), just as I see it turned here in Europe as well. The West is winning, don’t let anyone tell you about the decline of he West,” he said.

“It will take all of us… here in Prague, in Poland, in Portugal. We have the obligation to speak clearly and plainly to our people, and without fear. We must confront complex questions… and we must do so together,” he said.

(Writing by Jan Lopatka; Editing by Michael Kahn, William Maclean)

Pompeo insists ‘tide is turning’ on China

By Patricia Zengerle and Daphne Psaledakis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday the “tide is turning” in U.S. dealings with China, saying there is international support for American policies, including the step-up of maritime maneuvers in the South China Sea and opposition to the use of Chinese technology in international 5G networks.

Reflecting rising tensions between Washington and Beijing, Pompeo took a tough line on China in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“We see the Chinese Communist Party for what it is: the center threat of our times,” Pompeo said.

In recent days, Washington and Beijing have each closed one of the other country’s consulates – the United States closing China’s office in Houston and China retaliating by shuttering the U.S. facility in Chengdu – and Pompeo recently announced an end to Hong Kong’s special trading status.

“We closed the consulate in Houston because it was a den of spies,” Pompeo said.

He declined to directly address reports that Russia offered bounties for the killing of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. “The proper people have been aware of every threat to our soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan,” he said, in response to a question from Senator Bob Menendez, the top committee Democrat.

Pompeo was testifying publicly at Foreign Relations Committee hearing for the first time in 15 months, discussing the State Department’s annual budget request.

President Donald Trump’s administration has tried to slash the State Department budget since it took office, which has been rejected by Congress every year. Democratic lawmakers told the hearing that they would not support steep cuts this year either.

Committee Democrats released a report this week that harshly criticized Pompeo’s tenure at State, saying he had harmed the department’s ability to conduct diplomacy by leaving jobs open for months, treating career diplomats poorly and promoting a culture of retaliation.

Lawmakers also asked Pompeo about Trump’s abrupt firing in May of Steve Linick, the State Department inspector general, as he investigated arms sales to Saudi Arabia and allegations that Pompeo improperly ordered a taxpayer-funded subordinate to handle personal errands.

Pompeo denied wrongdoing, repeating earlier assertions that Linick had improperly leaked information.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Daphne Psaledakis; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Jonathan Oatis)

Pompeo expects ‘completely whitewashed’ WHO China investigation

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday he expected a World Health Organization (WHO) investigation into the origins of the novel coronavirus in China to be “completely whitewashed.”

Nearly 580,000 people globally have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and more than 13 million have been infected following an outbreak that started in Wuhan, China, last year.

The Geneva-based WHO said it was sending an team to China in early July to investigate how the outbreak started.

“This is a regime that failed to disclose the information they had about a virus that has now killed over 100,000 Americans … and now it is allowing the World Health Organization to go in to conduct what I am confident will be a completely, completely whitewashed investigation,” Pompeo told reporters.

The United States is the WHO’s most prominent critic, and has said it is leaving the U.N. agency.

President Donald Trump, who has been harshly criticized for his response to the outbreak in the United States, which has the world’s highest death toll at more than 136,000 people, has sought to blame China.

“I hope I am wrong. I hope it’s a thorough investigation that gets fully to the bottom, but I have watched the Chinese Communist Party’s behavior with respect to the virus that emanated from Wuhan and they have simply refused,” Pompeo said.

“They have destroyed samples. They have taken journalists and doctors who were prepared to talk about this and not permitted them to do what nations that want to play on a truly global scale and global stage ought to do: be transparent, and open, and communicate and cooperate,” he said.

(Reporting By Arshad Mohammed and Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

Russia jails ex-U.S. marine for 16 years on spying charges

By Andrew Osborn and Susan Heavey

MOSCOW/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A Russian court convicted former U.S. marine Paul Whelan of spying for the United States on Monday and sentenced him to 16 years in jail, a ruling that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said outraged Washington.

Whelan, who holds U.S., British, Canadian and Irish passports, was detained by agents from Russia’s Federal Security Service in a Moscow hotel room on Dec. 28, 2018 as he prepared to attend a wedding.

Russia says Whelan, 50, was caught with a computer flash drive containing classified information. Whelan, who pleaded not guilty, said he was set up in a sting operation and had thought the drive, given to him by a Russian acquaintance, contained holiday photos.

“This is all political theatre,” said Whelan, who watched proceedings from a glass box inside the Moscow city courtroom.

He told the judge he had not understood the verdict as proceedings were conducted in Russian without translation.

Whelan had held up a piece of paper on which he denounced the proceedings as a “sham trial” and asked for U.S. President Donald Trump and the leaders of Britain, Canada and Ireland to take “decisive action”.

Whelan’s lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, said an appeal would be made against the verdict. Questioning the court’s independence, Whelan’s family said in a statement “Russian judges are political not legal entities”.

Pompeo said Washington was furious and wanted Moscow to immediately free Whelan.

“The United States is outraged by the decision of a Russian court today to convict U.S. citizen Paul Whelan after a secret trial, with secret evidence, and without appropriate allowances for defense witnesses,” said Pompeo.

“The treatment of Paul Whelan at the hands of Russian authorities has been appalling. Russia failed to provide Mr. Whelan with a fair hearing before an independent and impartial tribunal; and during his detention has put his life at risk by ignoring his long-standing medical condition; and unconscionably kept him isolated from family and friends.”

John Sullivan, U.S. Ambassador to Russia, told reporters that no evidence had been produced to prove Whelan’s guilt during what he called a mockery of justice. The ruling would not have “a good impact” on ties between Moscow and Washington – already strained by a range of issues – but that dialogue would continue, he said.

PRISONER SWAP?

Zherebenkov said Whelan was told when he was detained that he would be part of a prisoner swap with the United States and that he believed this was what Moscow now wanted to do.

The Russian Foreign Ministry told the Russian news agency RIA it had proposed detailed prisoner swaps to Washington many times but gave no further details.

Moscow has called for the release of two Russians jailed in the United States – arms dealer Viktor Bout, who agreed to sell weapons to U.S. undercover agents posing as Colombian guerrillas planning to attack American soldiers, and Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was convicted of conspiracy to smuggle cocaine.

Zherebenkov said he believed Moscow wanted to do a deal involving Bout and Yaroshenko. Whelan did not oppose the idea of formally asking Russia to pardon him, Zherebenkov said, but wanted to appeal against the verdict first.

Bout’s wife, Alla, told the RIA news agency on Monday she was ready to pen an appeal to U.S. authorities asking them to swap her husband for Whelan.

A New York court in 2012 sentenced Bout, subject of a book called “Merchant of Death” and inspiration for the film “Lord of War” starring Nicolas Cage, to 25 years in jail.

Whelan will serve his sentence in a maximum security prison, the court said. State prosecutors had sought an 18-year term.

(Additional reporting by Alexander Marrow and Anton Kolodyazhnyy in Moscow; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Peter Graff)

U.S. condemns China’s ‘disastrous proposal’ on Hong Kong: Pompeo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday called China’s proposed national security legislation on Hong Kong disastrous and said it could have an impact on the favorable economic treatment the territory receives from the United States.

“The United States condemns the … proposal to unilaterally and arbitrarily impose national security legislation on Hong Kong,” Pompeo said.

“The United States strongly urges Beijing to reconsider its disastrous proposal, abide by its international obligations, and respect Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, democratic institutions, and civil liberties, which are key to preserving its special status under U.S. law.”

Pompeo’s statement went further than Thursday’s State Department warning and underscored how rapidly the world has responded to Beijing’s plans after Hong Kong’s mass pro-democracy protests last year.

The “Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act” approved by U.S. President Donald Trump last year requires the State Department to certify at least annually that Hong Kong retains enough autonomy to justify favorable trading terms that have helped it maintain its position as a world financial center.

Robert O’Brien, Trump’s national security adviser, told Fox News on Thursday Washington has “lots of tools to express our displeasure.” Neither he nor Pompeo detailed actions Washington might take.

“There are privileges that Hong Kong accrues because it’s considered a free system. We’d have to look over whether those concessions could continue to be made,” he said.

“If China moves forward and takes strong action under this new national security law … America will respond, and I think other countries in the world will respond, including the United Kingdom and many other of our allies and friends.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump’s likely challenger in November’s election, on Friday assailed Trump for what he characterized as his silence on human rights issues. If the State Department decertifies the territory, it ultimately falls to Trump to decide which of Hong Kong’s privileges to deny.

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert, Susan Heavey, Matt Spetalnick and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Toby Chopra and Howard Goller)

Trump says U.S. will report virus origins, gives no timeline

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump urged China on Tuesday to be transparent with what it knows about the origin of the coronavirus that emerged from Wuhan, China, and has wreaked havoc on the world.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday there was “a significant amount of evidence” that the new coronavirus emerged from a Chinese laboratory, but did not dispute U.S. intelligence agencies’ conclusion that it was not man-made.

The Chinese state-backed Wuhan Institute of Virology has dismissed the allegations, and other U.S. officials have downplayed their likelihood. Most experts believe the virus originated in a market selling wildlife in Wuhan and jumped from animals to people.

Trump, speaking to reporters outside the White House before leaving on a trip to Arizona, said the United States would release its report detailing the origins of the novel coronavirus over time but gave no other details or timeline.

“We will be reporting very definitively over a period of time,” the Republican president said.

Trump, who initially praised China over its response to the outbreak but has since blamed Beijing harshly over the virus, also said that he has not spoken to Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“We want them to be transparent. We want to find out what happened so it never happens again,” he said.

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Tim Ahmann; writing by Susan Heavey, Editing by Franklin Paul and Jonathan Oatis)

Pompeo says ‘significant’ evidence that new coronavirus emerged from Chinese lab

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Sunday there was “a significant amount of evidence” that the new coronavirus emerged from a Chinese laboratory, but did not dispute U.S. intelligence agencies’ conclusion that it was not man-made.

“There is a significant amount of evidence that this came from that laboratory in Wuhan,” Pompeo told ABC’s “This Week,” referring to the virus that emerged late last year in China and has killed about 240,000 people around the world, including more than 67,000 in the United States.

Pompeo then briefly contradicted a statement issued last Thursday by the top U.S. spy agency that said the virus did not appear to be man-made or genetically modified. That statement undercut conspiracy theories promoted by anti-China activists and some supporters of President Donald Trump who suggest it was developed in a Chinese government biological weapons laboratory.

“The best experts so far seem to think it was man-made. I have no reason to disbelieve that at this point,” Pompeo said. When the interviewer pointed out that was not the conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies, Pompeo backtracked, saying: “I’ve seen what the intelligence community has said. I have no reasonto believe that they’ve got it wrong.”

The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for clarification on Pompeo’s comments.

China’s Global Times, run by the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, said in an editorial responding to Pompeo’s Sunday interview that he did not have any evidence the virus came from the lab in Wuhan and that he was “bluffing,” calling on the United States to present the evidence.

“The Trump administration continues to engage in unprecedented propaganda warfare while trying to impede global efforts in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic,” the editorial said.

Thursday’s report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said it concurred with “the wide scientific consensus” that the disease was not man-made.

U.S. officials familiar with intelligence reporting and analysis have said for weeks that they do not believe Chinese scientists developed the coronavirus in a government biological weapons lab from which it then escaped.

Rather, they have said they believe it was either introduced through human contact with wildlife at a meat market in the central city of Wuhan, or could have escaped from one of two Wuhan government laboratories believed to be conducting civilian research into possible biological hazards.

Pompeo said on Thursday it was not known whether the virus came from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a meat market, or somewhere else. Trump said the same day that he was confident it may have originated in a Chinese virology lab, but he declined to describe the evidence.

(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Scott Malone, Daniel Wallis and Peter Cooney)