Trump officials rush to Turkey as Moscow advances to fill Syria void from U.S. retreat

Trump officials rush to Turkey as Moscow advances to fill Syria void from U.S. retreat
By Tuvan Gumrukcu

ANKARA (Reuters) – The Trump administration dispatched its top officials to Turkey on Wednesday for emergency talks to try to persuade Ankara to halt an assault on northern Syria, while Russian troops swept into territory abandoned by Washington in a sudden retreat.

Robert O’Brien, White House national security adviser since last month, arrived in Turkey aiming to meet Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Wednesday. Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are expecting to meet the following day with President Tayyip Erdogan.

The administration is trying to contain the fallout from Erdogan’s decision to send forces last week to attack Syrian Kurdish militia that were Washington’s close allies.

Erdogan again insisted there would be no ceasefire, and said he might call off a visit to the United States next month because of the “very big disrespect” shown by U.S. politicians.

He also denounced the United States for taking the “unlawful, ugly step” of imposing criminal charges against a Turkish state bank over allegations it broke sanctions on Iran.

Turkey’s assault, launched after a call between Erdogan and President Donald Trump, forced Washington to abandon a strategy in place for five years and pull its troops from northern Syria.

It has spawned a humanitarian crisis, with 160,000 civilians taking flight, a security alert over thousands of Islamic State fighters abandoned in Kurdish jails, and a political maelstrom at home for Trump, accused by congressional leaders, including fellow Republicans, of betraying loyal U.S. allies, the Kurds.

Syrian government forces, backed by Washington’s adversaries Russia and Iran, have meanwhile taken advantage of the power vacuum left by retreating U.S. troops to advance swiftly into the largest swath of territory previously outside their grasp.

Trump played down the crisis on Wednesday, saying the conflict was between Turkey and Syria and that it was “fine” for Russia to help its ally Damascus. Sanctioning Turkey would be better than fighting in the region, he said.

Washington announced sanctions to punish Turkey on Monday, but Trump’s critics said the steps, mainly a steel tariffs hike and a pause in trade talks, were too feeble to have an impact.

A day later U.S. prosecutors’ charges were unveiled against Turkey’s majority state-owned Halkbank for taking part in a scheme to evade Iran sanctions. Washington says the case is unrelated to politics. Halkbank denies wrongdoing and called the case part of the sanctions against Turkey.

U.S. “SHOW OF FORCE”

The Turkish advance, and Washington’s need to swiftly evacuate its own forces, have brought the two biggest militaries in NATO close to confrontation on the battlefield. Washington has complained about Turkish artillery fire near its troops.

In the latest potential flashpoint, U.S. military aircraft made a “show of force” over the border city of Kobani after Turkish-backed fighters came close to American troops there, a U.S. official said.

Pence said Erdogan had promised Trump by phone that Turkey would not attack Kobani, a strategically important border city where U.S. forces first came to the aid of Kurds against Islamic State, which massacred Kurdish civilians there in 2014.

Erdogan said he had not broken his promise to Trump: “Mr Trump’s remark on Kobani was ‘Don’t strike there’,” Erdogan told reporters late on Tuesday. “We said that we had only done an encircling operation there at the moment.”

LAND RUSH

Washington’s hasty exit has created a land rush between Turkey and Russia – now the undisputed foreign powers in the area – to partition the formerly U.S.-protected Kurdish area.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the eight-year Syrian war, said on Wednesday Russian troops had crossed the Euphrates River to advance to Kobani’s outskirts.

Lebanon’s al-Mayadeen TV reported that Russian-backed Syrian forces had also set up outposts in Raqqa, the one-time capital of Islamic State’s caliphate, which the Kurds captured in 2017 at the peak of their campaign with U.S. support.

Hours after Washington announced its pullout on Sunday, the Kurds made a rapid deal with Washington’s adversaries, the Russia- and Iran-backed government of President Bashar al-Assad.

Russia-backed Syrian troops have swiftly moved across the breadth of the Kurdish-held area including Manbij city, a target of Turkey which U.S. forces said on Tuesday they had quit.

Reuters journalists traveling with Syrian government forces on Tuesday entered Manbij and saw Russian and Syrian flags on buildings nearby. Russian state media said on Wednesday Syrian government forces had occupied bases abandoned by U.S. troops.

Erdogan, due in Moscow later this month, said he had told President Vladimir Putin that Russia could move forces into Manbij, provided that the Kurdish YPG militia was cleared out.

Erdogan says Trump approved his plan for a “safe zone” about 30 km (20 miles) inside Syria. Trump says he did not endorse the plan but Washington could not stay to police the Middle East.

“They say ‘declare a ceasefire’. We will never declare a ceasefire,” Erdogan told reporters. “Our goal is clear. We are not worried about any sanctions.”

The Turkish campaign shows no sign of abating on the ground, with most fighting so far around two border cities, Ras al Ain and Tel Abyad. A Reuters cameraman in the Turkish border town of Ceylanpinar reported the sound of heavy gunfire just across the frontier in Ras al Ain, which Turkey’s Defence Ministry had earlier said its forces controlled.

(Additional reporting by Mert Ozkan; Writing by Dominic Evans and Peter Graff; Editing by Alison Williams)

Pompeo says he was on phone call that triggered Trump impeachment drive

By David Brunnstrom and Patricia Zengerle

ROME/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo acknowledged on Wednesday that he listened in on the telephone call between Donald Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart that prompted a House of Representatives impeachment inquiry against the Republican U.S. president.

The admission by Pompeo, a key Trump ally, moved the top U.S. diplomat closer to the center of the scandal and raised further questions about his role in the administration’s interactions with Ukraine, including the recall of the U.S. ambassador to Kiev earlier this year.

The Democratic-led House last week launched its impeachment inquiry, which threatens Trump’s presidency, in the aftermath of a complaint brought by a whistleblower within the U.S. intelligence community over Trump’s request to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy during a July 25 phone call to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden.

Biden is a leading contender for the Democratic nomination to challenge Trump in the 2020 presidential election. Democrats have accused Trump of pressuring a vulnerable U.S. ally to interfere in the 2020 U.S. election to harm a domestic political rival for Trump’s personal political benefit.

“I was on the phone call,” Pompeo told reporters during a visit to Italy.

Pompeo said the call was in the context of U.S. policymaking in Ukraine, including “taking down the Russia threat,” rooting out corruption in government and boosting the economy. The Wall Street Journal first reported that Pompeo was on the call.

Trump made his request to Zelenskiy shortly after he had frozen nearly $400 million in U.S. aid to Ukraine. Zelenskiy agreed to Trump’s request on the call. The aid money was later provided to Ukraine. Democrats have accused Trump of using taxpayer money as leverage on Ukraine.

Trump, who is seeking a second four-year term as president, has denied wrongdoing and has assailed the impeachment probe.

In an intensifying battle between House Democrats and Trump’s administration, Democratic-led committees have subpoenaed Pompeo and Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, as well as documents. They will begin depositions of current and former State Department officials this week.

The department’s inspector general, Steve Linick, was due to brief congressional staff on Wednesday to address Ukraine-related documents that have been subpoenaed, according to two sources familiar with the situation.

‘FUNDAMENTAL VALUES’

Pompeo on Tuesday objected to House efforts to obtain depositions and accused Democrats of bullying and intimidation.

Asked about his concerns, Pompeo said State Department employees had been contacted directly by lawmakers or their staff and told not to talk to the State Department’s legal counsel. He said, however, that he would cooperate with Congress.

“We will, of course, do our constitutional duty to cooperate with this co-equal branch but we are going to do so in a way that is consistent with the fundamental values of the American system,” Pompeo said.

The Democratic chairmen of three House committees have accused Pompeo of intimidating witnesses and said doing so is illegal. They warned Pompeo on Tuesday that he is considered “a fact witness in the House impeachment inquiry” based on his role in Trump’s call with Zelenskiy.

House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings intends to subpoena the White House for Ukraine-related records on Friday after what he described as “flagrant disregard of multiple voluntary requests for documents,” according to a memo he sent to the panel.

According to a summary of the July call released by the White House, Trump asked Zelenskiy to investigate Biden and his son Hunter in coordination with U.S. Attorney General William Barr and Giuliani.

Hunter Biden had sat on the board of a Ukrainian gas company that had been under investigation by Kiev.

The prospect that Trump solicited Ukraine’s help against his potential challenger next year has infuriated Democrats, many of whom blame the loss of the 2016 presidential election on Russian interference. Moscow has denied interfering in that campaign.

On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he saw no evidence of pressure in Trump’s July conversation with Zelenskiy and added that there was nothing wrong with the U.S. president asking for an investigation into potential corruption.

U.S. intelligence agencies and Special Counsel Robert Mueller concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 election with a scheme of hacking and propaganda to boost the Republican Trump’s candidacy and disparage his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton.

Kurt Volker, who resigned last Friday as Trump’s special representative for Ukraine, was scheduled to go to Capitol Hill to give a deposition to House staff on Thursday, the day he had been asked to appear. Marie Yovanovitch, who was U.S. ambassador to Ukraine until she was abruptly recalled in May, has agreed to appear on Oct. 11. In his phone call with Zelenskiy, Trump called Yovanovitch “bad news.”

With their deep knowledge of Ukraine, testimony by Yovanovitch and Volker could be especially important to the impeachment probe.

The inquiry could lead to approval of articles of impeachment – or formal charges – against Trump in the House. That would lead to a trial in the Senate on whether to remove him from office. The president’s fellow Republicans control the Senate and have shown little appetite for removing him.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Doina Chiacu; Additional reporting by Makini Brice in Washington Katya Golubkova in Moscow; Writing by Patricia Zengerle and Paul Simao; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. to withdraw and withhold funds from Afghanistan, blames corruption

WASHINGTON/KABUL (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday the United States would withdraw about $100 million earmarked for an energy infrastructure project in Afghanistan and withhold a further $60 million in planned assistance, blaming corruption and a lack of transparency in the country.

Pompeo said in a statement the United States would complete the infrastructure project but would do so using an “‘off-budget’ mechanism”, faulting Afghanistan for an “inability to transparently manage U.S. government resources”.

“Due to identified Afghan government corruption and financial mismanagement, the U.S. Government is returning approximately $100 million to the U.S. Treasury that was intended for a large energy infrastructure project,” he added.

The decision comes a day after the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, John Bass, in a tweet called out the country’s National Procurement Authority (NPA) for not approving the purchase of fuel for thermal electricity.

Residents of Kabul have accused the NPA of ignoring people’s need for energy, as large parts of the city have been without power for more than seven hours every day this month.

Electricity outages have also inflicted losses for manufacturing companies and emergency health services.

“Hearing reports the National Procurement Authority won’t authorize fuel purchases for the power plant providing the only electricity in Kabul – even while the U.S. & Resolute Support help Afghan security forces enable repairs to power transmission lines. Could this be true?” Bass said in a tweet on Wednesday.

The power crisis intensified further this week after insurgents attack pylons in northern provinces. About a third of the country has been hit by blackouts.

(Reporting by Makini Brice in Washington DC, Rupam Jain in Kabul; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Alex Richardson)

Iran warns against war as U.S. and Saudi weigh response to oil attack

By Tuqa Khalid and Stephen Kalin

DUBAI/JEDDAH (Reuters) – Iran warned U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday against being dragged into all-out war in the Middle East following an attack on Saudi Arabian oil facilities which Washington and Riyadh blame on Tehran.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has described the weekend strike that initially halved Saudi oil output as an act of war and has been discussing possible retaliation with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies.

Trump on Wednesday struck a cautious note, saying there were many options short of war with Iran, which denies involvement in the Sept. 14 strikes. He ordered more sanctions on Tehran.

Iran’s foreign minister responded by telling CNN that the Islamic Republic “won’t blink” if it has to defend itself against any U.S. or Saudi military strike, which he said would lead to “all-out war”.

Mohammed Javad Zarif said Pompeo was part of a so-called “B-team”, which Tehran says includes Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and is trying to dupe Trump into opting for war.

Pompeo said on Wednesday the attack was an act of war against the Saudis.

Riyadh, which called the assault a “test of global will”, on Wednesday displayed what it described as remnants of 25 Iranian drones and missiles used in the strike, saying it was undeniable evidence of Iranian aggression.

BUILDING A COALITION

The United Arab Emirates on Thursday followed its ally Saudi Arabia in announcing it was joining a global maritime security coalition that Washington has been trying to build since a series of explosions on oil tankers in Gulf waters in recent months that were also blamed on Tehran.

Pompeo, who arrived in the UAE from Saudi Arabia on Thursday, welcomed the move on Twitter: “Recent events underscore the importance of protecting global commerce and freedom of navigation.”

Britain and Bahrain previously said they are participating but most European countries have been reluctant to sign up for fear of stoking regional tensions. Iraq said it would not join the mission, and also rejected any Israeli role in it.

Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi movement, which is battling a Saudi-led military coalition, claimed responsibility for the assault on two Saudi oil plants, including the world’s largest processing facility. U.S. and Saudi officials rejected the claim, saying the attack had not come from the south.

Kuwait, which said earlier this week it was investigating the detection of a drone over its territory, has put its oil sector on high alert and raised security to the highest level as a precautionary measure.

Oil prices, which soared following the attack, steadied after Saudi Arabia pledged to restore full oil production by the end of September. [O/R]

U.N. MEETING IN FOCUS

Proof of Iranian responsibility and evidence that the attack was launched from Iranian territory could pressure Riyadh and Washington, which want to curb Iranian influence in the region, into a response.

Pompeo said the attacks would be a major focus of next week’s annual U.N. General Assembly meeting and suggested Riyadh could make its case there.

Iran’s Zarif accused Pompeo of trying to “dodge a U.S. obligation” to issue visas for Iran’s U.N. delegates.

Tehran says the U.S. accusations were part of Washington’s “maximum pressure” policy on Iran to force it to renegotiate a 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, which Trump exited last year, reimposing sanctions to choke off Iran’s oil exports.

Tehran, which has gradually scaled back its nuclear commitments, has rejected any talks unless sanctions are lifted.

“The United States is now using oil as a weapon; oil is not a weapon,” Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zangeneh said.

France, which is trying to salvage the deal, said the New York gathering presented a chance to de-escalate tensions.

“When missiles hit another country it is an act of war, but we have to go back to the principle of de-escalation,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said. “There is an international investigation, let’s wait for its results.”

(Reporting by Tuqa Khalid and Stephen Kalin; Additional reporting by Mahal El Dahan, Nafisa Eltahir, Aziz El Yaakoubi, Rania El Gamal and Dubai newsroom, Sudip Kar-Gupta in Paris, Michelle Martin in Berlin, Julia Payne and Dmitry Zhdannikov in London, John Davison and Mohammed Katfan in Baghdad, Ahmed Tolba and Samar Hassan in Cairo; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Giles Elgood)

After Bolton fireworks, Trump picks low-key Robert O’Brien for top job

By Steve Holland, Jonathan Landay and Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump picked U.S. hostage negotiator Robert O’Brien on Wednesday as his fourth White House national security adviser, turning to a low-key choice for the position after the boisterous tenure of John Bolton.

O’Brien’s selection was a sign of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s clout with the president, with U.S. officials saying Pompeo had made clear he would be happy with either O’Brien or another candidate, former deputy national security adviser Ricky Waddell.

“I have worked long & hard with Robert. He will do a great job!” Trump said in a tweet.

Aides said Trump had gotten to know O’Brien through his work as the U.S. envoy for hostage negotiations and admired his ability to get hostages returned from North Korea and Turkey.

The job most recently took him to Sweden in a bid to get the American rapper known professionally as A$AP Rocky out of jail on an assault charge.

A source close to the White House said Trump wanted to pick a new adviser who would be able to get along well with Pompeo after the secretary of state sometimes struggled with Bolton.

O’Brien, the source said, “is a low-profile, articulate negotiator who has a strong relationship with Pompeo.”

O’Brien follows in the footsteps of three other national security advisers: Michael Flynn and H.R. McMaster and, most recently, Bolton, who clashed with the president over a host of issues from Iran to Afghanistan to North Korea.

Bolton parted ways with Trump a little more than a week ago, his stormy ending coming shortly after he disagreed with the prospect of the president easing some sanctions on Iran, a person close to Bolton said.

Within the National Security Council, O’Brien’s critical task will be to stabilize a sprawling foreign policy apparatus where morale has taken a major hit since Trump took office, according to an NSC insider.

Trump’s abrupt firing of Bolton added to a sense of unease among NSC staff. A key question is whether O’Brien will reinstate the inter-agency coordinating role for which the NSC was originally conceived but which was largely put on ice during Bolton’s tenure, the source said.

For Trump, O’Brien represents a low-key choice for the job, a sign that the president was happy to have someone without the television starpower of Bolton.

O’Brien is an attorney from Los Angeles who served as a foreign policy adviser to 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and 2016 candidate Scott Walker. He has handled a number of high-profile legal cases and previously served in several State Department positions, including as an alternative representative to the U.N. General Assembly in 2005.

O’Brien has been a fan of the recently departed Bolton after the two worked together when Bolton was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 2005 during George W. Bush’s presidency.

In a December 2016 column for radio host Hugh Hewitt’s website, O’Brien called Bolton “a formidable diplomat and a patriot” in recommending the newly elected Trump pick Bolton for a high-profile assignment.

“John’s job as our man at the UN was never easy, often exhausting and painfully slow at points. But John, the definition of a diplomat, never grew physically tired or ever lost his temper with other diplomats or the mission’s staff,” O’Brien wrote.

Trump in March had complimented O’Brien for doing a “fantastic job” after gaining the release of American hostage Danny Burch in Yemen.

People close to the White House said Trump was looking for someone who would manage the national security process, voice opinions behind the scenes but not go public with differences.

One of the most prominent hostage cases O’Brien has worked on is that of Austin Tice, a freelance journalist believed by the U.S. government to be alive who was abducted in Syria in August 2012 while reporting on the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.

Tice’s parents, Marc and Debra Tice, praised what they described as O’Brien’s quiet, dogged efforts to win their son’s release.

“He’s kept us informed and been regularly in touch,” Marc Tice told Reuters in a telephone interview from his Houston home. “With Robert in this new role, Austin’s return can happen even sooner.”

(Reporting by Steve Holland, Jonathan Landay and Matt Spetalnick; Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton, Makini Brice and Susan Heavey; Editing by Bernadette Baum, Lisa Shumaker and Tom Brown)

U.S. still hopes for talks after latest North Korean missile tests

People watch a TV broadcast of a news report on North Korea firing short-range ballistic missiles, in Seoul, South Korea, July 31, 2019. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

By Josh Smith and David Brunnstrom

SEOUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – North Korea’s latest missile launches did not violate a pledge its leader Kim Jong Un made to U.S. President Donald Trump, a senior U.S. official said on Thursday, but efforts to resume denuclearization talks remained in doubt.

Kim oversaw the first test firing of what North Korean state media called a “new-type large-caliber multiple-launch guided rocket system” on Wednesday.

North Korean television showed rockets launching from a vehicle that had been blurred in photos to obscure its features.

U.S. officials said North Korea appeared to have carried out a new projectile launch early on Friday Korea time, adding that initial information indicated the activity was similar to the other recent tests. The officials said it was unclear how many projectiles had been launched in the latest test.

The launches came days after North Korea tested two short-range ballistic missiles on July 25 and despite a meeting between Kim and Trump on June 30 at which the agreed to revive stalled denuclearization talks.

The tests appeared intended to put pressure on South Korea and the United States to stop planned military exercises and offer other concessions and came as diplomats criss-crossed the region this week in the hope of restarting the talks.

“The firing of these missiles don’t violate the pledge that Kim Jong Un made to the president about intercontinental-range ballistic missiles,” U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said in an interview with Fox Business Network.

“But you have to ask when the real diplomacy is going to begin, when the working-level discussions on denuclearization will begin,” he said.

“We’ve been waiting to hear since June the 30th,” Bolton told the network in a subsequent interview. “We’re ready for working-level negotiations. The president’s ready, when the time is right, for another summit. Let’s hear from North Korea.”

South Korea and Japan were concerned by the launches, “because they’re within range, we think, of this particular missile,” Bolton added without mentioning the tens of thousands of U.S. troops based in both countries.

NUCLEAR ARSENAL

Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Vipin Narang said the missile tests were part of the North Korean leader’s approach to diplomacy: “He’s saying it will take more than a photo op to get things moving.”

While Trump and his administration have sought to play down the tests, Narang said they were a stark reminder that every day Washington and its allies fail to secure an agreement North Korea continues to improve and expand its nuclear and missile arsenals.

On Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he hoped talks would start soon, though he “regretted” that a highly anticipated meeting with North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho would not take place in Thailand this week.

Ri has canceled a trip to an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) conference in Bangkok that Pompeo is attending.

“We stand ready to continue our diplomatic conversation,” Pompeo told a news conference in Bangkok, adding that he was optimistic Kim would deploy his team for working-level talks “before too long”.

At the United Nations on Thursday, Britain, France and Germany called on North Korea to engage in “meaningful” talks with the United States and said international sanctions needed to be fully enforced until Pyongyang dismantled its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

Their statement came after a closed-door U.N. Security Council meeting on the latest launches.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the launches were a reminder of the need to restart denuclearization talks.

China, North Korea’s neighbor and main ally, welcomed the U.S. readiness to restart working-level talks, top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi said in Bangkok, following talks with Pompeo.

While China has signed up for U.N. sanctions on North Korea, Chinese President Xi Jinping urged Trump in a meeting in Japan last month “to show flexibility and meet the North Koreans half way, including easing sanctions in due course.”

The United States and North Korea have yet to narrow key differences and a summit between Trump and Kim in Vietnam in February collapsed over U.S. demands for North Korea’s complete denuclearization and North Korean demands for sanctions relief.

North Korea has accused Washington of breaking a promise by planning to go ahead with military drills with South Korea this month and has said they could derail dialogue.

It has also warned of a possible end to its freeze on nuclear and long-range missile tests in place since 2017, which Trump has repeatedly held up as evidence of the success of his engagement with Kim.

A senior U.S. defense official said on Wednesday that the United States did not plan to make changes to the drills.

‘FAT TARGET’

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said North Korea had fired ballistic missiles on Wednesday that flew about 250 km (155 miles).

Such launches are banned under U.N. resolutions designed to press North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons and missile programs.

North Korean images of the launches appeared to show a type of multiple-launch rocket system (MLRS). Such systems form a major part of North Korea’s conventional arsenal, according to a 2018 assessment by South Korea’s defense ministry.

North Korean media said the tests verified the combat effectiveness of the overall rocket system and Kim predicted: “it would be an inescapable distress to the forces becoming a fat target of the weapon.”

The North Korean military has nearly 5,500 MLRS, along with 8,600 field guns, 4,300 tanks, and 2,500 armored vehicles, the ministry said.

(Reporting by Josh Smith in SEOUL and David Brunnstromin WASHINGTON; Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin, Cate Cadell, Panu Wongcha-um and Patpicha Tanakasempipat in BANGKOK, David Alexanderand Idrees Ali in WASHINGTON, and Michelle Nichols in NEW YORK; Editing by Robert Birsel and Clarence Fernandez)

North Korea tests more missiles despite efforts at diplomatic solutions

People watch a TV that shows a file picture of a North Korean missile for a news report on North Korea firing short-range ballistic missiles, in Seoul, South Korea, July 31, 2019. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

By Josh Smith and Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles early on Wednesday, the South Korean military said, only days after it launched two similar missiles intended to pressure South Korea and the United States to stop upcoming military drills.

The firings follow launches on July 25, North Korea’s first missile tests since leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump met on June 30 and agreed to revive stalled denuclearization talks.

The series of missile tests raises the stakes for U.S. and South Korean diplomats crisscrossing the region this week in the hope of restarting talks aimed at persuading Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

“North Korea’s actions do not help ease military tensions, nor do they help keep the momentum for talks that are underway,” South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told reporters in Seoul before leaving for a Southeast Asian security forum in Bangkok.

Kang urged North Korea to halt the missile launches.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the top U.S. North Korea negotiator were also headed to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum in the Thai capital, where Pompeo said he was holding out hope that U.S. officials could meet North Korean counterparts.

Trump and Pompeo both played down last week’s launches and Pompeo has continued to express hope for a diplomatic way forward with North Korea.

The latest launch comes ahead of newly appointed U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper’s first official visit to Seoul, which the Pentagon said on Tuesday was scheduled as part of a tour through Asia in August.

U.S. military forces in South Korea were aware of Wednesday’s launch, a spokesman said.

NEW MISSILES

Wednesday’s launches were from the Wonsan area on North Korea’s east coast, from which last week’s missiles had been fired, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said in a statement. It said it was monitoring in case of more launches.

The JCS said later the North had fired ballistic missiles that flew about 250 km (155 miles) and appeared to be similar to those of last week.

The missiles, dubbed the KN-23, are designed to evade missile defense systems by being easier to hide, launch, and maneuver in flight, experts said.

Kim described the two KN-23s launched last week as having a “low-altitude gliding and leaping flight” pattern that would make them hard to intercept.

Analysts said the range and altitude of Wednesday’s flights could indicate a demonstration or test of those capabilities.

South Korean defense minister Jeong Kyeong-doo told a defense forum in Seoul that stopping a missile like the KN-23 would be difficult, although South Korea’s missile defense systems would be able to detect and intercept them.

South Korea’s defense ministry also told lawmakers in Seoul it had concluded that a new submarine the North showcased last week was capable of carrying up to three ballistic missiles.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said there was no impact from Wednesday’s launch on Japan’s security.

“We will continue to closely cooperate with the United States and others,” Abe told reporters.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Japan would still seek a summit with North Korea, without conditions, despite the latest launch.

‘BARGAINING CHIP’

Trump and Kim met on June 30 in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between the two Koreas but Pyongyang has since accused Washington of breaking a promise by planning to hold joint military exercises with South Korea next month and warned the drills could derail talks.

Later on Wednesday, state news agency KCNA repeated calls for the United States and South Korea to end their “hostile” joint drills, but did not mention the missile launches.

“It is a prerequisite for improving the inter-Korean relations and ensuring peace on the Korean peninsula to call an overall and permanent halt to anti-North war drills, the root cause of confrontation and war,” it said in a commentary.

Moves by the United States and South Korea to rename the approaching exercises were simply double-dealing that proved “confrontational maniacs remain unchanged in their black-hearted intention to stifle” North Korea by force, it added.

A top South Korean official said last month the drills would mainly involve computer simulations.

North Korea has also warned of a possible end to its freeze on nuclear and long-range missile tests that has been in place since 2017, which Trump has repeatedly upheld as evidence of the success of his engagement with Kim.

Henri Feron, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for International Policy, said the United States and South Korea may need to consider a temporary suspension of the drills, or propose other measures to reduce tensions.

“I do think there is a high risk that talks will end altogether if Washington and Seoul continue to ignore North Korea’s concern with the exercises,” he said.

A summit between Trump and Kim in Vietnam in February collapsed after they failed to reconcile differences between Washington’s demands for Pyongyang’s complete denuclearization and North Korean demands for sanctions relief.

Trump says he has a good relationship with Kim and Pompeo said on Monday he hoped working-level talks could occur soon.

Pompeo told reporters traveling with him to Asia on Tuesday he did not know when this would happen but hoped U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun and his new counterpart could meet soon.

North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho canceled a planned visit to the ASEAN forum in Bangkok but Pompeo said the Americans were still open to a meeting.

Harry Kazianis, of Washington’s Center for the National Interest think tank, said the latest launches were a clear attempt by North Korea to put pressure on Washington.

Other analysts have said North Korea will be emboldened to press more aggressively for U.S. concessions by Trump’s apparent eagerness to hold up his engagement with Pyongyang as a foreign policy success ahead of his 2020 re-election bid.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith in SEOUL, Eric Beech and David Brunnstrom in WASHINGTON; Additional reporting by Kaori Kaneko and Chris Gallagher in TOKYO; Editing by Paul Tait and Clarence Fernandez)

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)