Iran supreme leader ups ante in volatile stand-off with U.S.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei waves during ceremony attended by Iranian clerics in Tehran, Iran, July 16, 2019. Official Khamenei website/Handout via REUTERS

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran’s supreme leader upped the ante in a volatile stand-off with the United States on Tuesday, warning Tehran would continue removing restraints on its nuclear program and retaliate for the seizure of an Iranian oil tanker.

Tensions have spiked since U.S. President Donald Trump last year abandoned world powers’ 2015 nuclear deal with Iran under which it agreed to curtail its enrichment of uranium in return for the lifting of global sanctions crippling its economy.

European parties to the pact decided on Monday not to trigger the deal’s dispute mechanism in favor of pursuing more talks and avert any U.S.-Iranian military conflict, but took no action to shield Iran against a sanctions clampdown by Trump.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s ultimate authority, accused Britain, Germany and France of failing to uphold obligations under the deal to restore Iranian access to global trade, especially for Tehran’s oil exports blocked by U.S. sanctions.

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

“We have started to reduce our commitments and this trend shall continue,” Khamenei said in remarks carried by state television.

IRAN FUMES OVER EU INACTION

He has previously upbraided European powers for not standing up to Trump and circumventing his sanctions noose. Russia and China are also parties to the accord.

But it was the first time Khamenei explicitly pledged to press ahead with breaches of the nuclear deal, spurning European appeals to Iran to restore limits on enrichment aimed at obviating any dash to developing atomic bombs.

“So far, efforts to win gestures from Iran to de-escalate the crisis are not succeeding (as) Tehran is demanding the lifting of sanctions on its oil and banking sectors first,” a European diplomatic source told Reuters. 

Iran has long denied any intent to acquire nuclear weapons and has said all its breaches could be reversed if Washington returned to the deal and its economic dividends were realized. Tehran has accused Washington of waging “economic war”.

“Western governments’ major vice is their arrogance,” Khamenei said. “If the country opposing them is a weak one, their arrogance works. But if it’s a country that knows and stands up against them, they will be defeated.”

IAEA inspectors last week confirmed Iran is now enriching uranium to 4.5% fissile purity, above the 3.67% limit set by its deal, the second breach in as many weeks after Tehran exceeded limits on its stock of low-enriched uranium.

The level at which Iran is now refining uranium is still well below the 20% purity of enrichment Iran reached before the deal, and the 90% needed to yield bomb-grade nuclear fuel. Low-enriched uranium provides fuel for civilian power plants.

European Union foreign ministers, in a meeting on Monday, deemed Iran’s violations not to be “significant”, drawing Israeli accusations of appeasement recalling failed diplomacy with Nazi Germany in the run-up to World War Two.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said on Monday Iran remained “a good year away from developing a nuclear bomb”, adding there was still a “small window to keep the deal alive.”

The Europeans are trying to set up Instex, a barter-based trade conduit with Iran but it would initially deal only in items not subject to U.S. sanctions — such as pharmaceuticals and foods. Iran has said Instex must include oil sales or provide substantial credit facilities for it to be beneficial.

“PIRACY”

Khamenei also said Iran would respond to Britain’s “piracy” over the seizure in early July of an Iranian oil tanker in Gibraltar.

“Evil Britain commits piracy and steals our ship … and gives it a legal appearance. The Islamic Republic…will not leave this wickedness unanswered and will respond to it at an appropriate time and place,” he said.

Iran has called on Britain to immediately release the vessel, which was detained by British Royal Marines on the suspicion that it was breaking European sanctions by taking oil to Tehran’s close ally Syria.

Washington says it is applying “maximum pressure” on Iran to agree stricter limits on its nuclear capacity, curb its ballistic missile program and end support for proxy forces in a Middle East power struggle with U.S.-backed Gulf Arabs.

Fears of direct U.S.-Iranian conflict have risen since May with several attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf, Iran’s downing of a U.S. surveillance drone, and a plan for U.S. airstrikes on Iran last month that Trump aborted at the last minute.

In what loomed as another obstacle to trouble-shooting diplomacy, Iran confirmed on Tuesday it had detained French-Iranian scholar Fariba Adelkhah but declined to elaborate, a day after Paris demanded information on her case.

Rights activists have accused Iran of arresting a number of dual nationals to try and extract concessions from the West – a charge the Islamic Republic has repeatedly dismissed.

Iran’s rial currency appears to have stabilized despite the brewing confrontation with the United States, gaining about 13% since early May after a 60% plunge last year.

Analysts said that not only was Iran’s forex market growing used to the tensions but the central bank had propped up the rial through injections of hard cash and steps to ensure the return of dollars earned from exports.

(Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris; Writing by Mark Heinrich; Editing by Jon Boyle)

Hezbollah warns U.S. over sanctions against Iran and allies

FILE PHOTO: Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah addresses supporters via a screen in Beirut, Lebanon, September 20, 2018. REUTERS/Aziz Taher/File Photo

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s Hezbollah raised the prospect of retaliation by Iran and its allies over U.S. sanctions, saying on Wednesday that all options were on the table were Washington to take steps that “threaten our nation”.

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the heavily armed Iranian-backed Shi’ite group, said the United States’ move this week to designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization reflected a failure of U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Iran and its allies, which include Hezbollah, had so far made do with condemnation in response to the U.S. sanctions, said Nasrallah, before adding that this was “not a permanent and fixed policy”.

“There are measures which, if taken by the Americans … who said they will remain without response?” he said in a televised speech delivered to an event for Hezbollah’s wounded fighters.

“There will be an appropriate response for sure,” he said. Iran and its allies held “many strong cards”, he added.

Hezbollah was founded by the Revolutionary Guards in 1982 and has long been designated as a terrorist group by the United States. U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has tightened sanctions against Hezbollah as part of its wider regional policy to counter Iran.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday that Trump would continue to increase pressure on Iran.

(Reporting by Beirut bureau; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Russia tells Washington curbs on its banks would be act of economic war

The U.S. dollar sign is seen on an electronic board next to a traffic light in Moscow, Russia August 10, 2018. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

By Andrew Osborn and Andrey Ostroukh

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia warned the United States on Friday it would regard any U.S. move to curb the activities of its banks as a declaration of economic war which it would retaliate against, stepping up a war of words with Washington over spiraling sanctions.

The warning, from Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, reflects Russian fears over the impact of new restrictions on its economy and assets, including the rouble which has lost nearly six percent of its value this week on sanctions jitters.

Economists expect the economy to grow by 1.8 percent this year. But if new sanctions proposed by Congress and the State Department are implemented in full, something that remains uncertain, some economists fear growth would be almost cut to zero in future.

In a sign of how seriously Russia is taking the threat, President Vladimir Putin discussed what the Kremlin called “possible new unfriendly steps by Washington” with his Security Council on Friday.

Moscow’s strategy of trying to improve battered U.S.-Russia ties by attempting to build bridges with President Donald Trump is backfiring after U.S. lawmakers launched a new sanctions drive last week because they fear Trump is too soft on Russia.

That, in turn, has piled pressure on Trump to show he is tough on Russia ahead of mid-term elections.

On Wednesday, the State Department announced a new round of sanctions that pushed the rouble to two-year lows and sparked a wider sell-off over fears Russia was locked in a spiral of never-ending sanctions.

Separate legislation introduced last week in draft form by Republican and Democratic senators, dubbed “the sanctions bill from hell” by one of its backers, proposes curbs on the operations of several state-owned Russian banks in the United States and restrictions on their use of the dollar.

Medvedev said Moscow would take economic, political or other retaliatory measures against the United States if Washington targeted Russian banks.

“I would not like to comment on talks about future sanctions, but I can say one thing: If some ban on banks’ operations or on their use of one or another currency follows, it would be possible to clearly call it a declaration of economic war,” said Medvedev.

“And it would be necessary, it would be needed to react to this war economically, politically, or, if needed, by other means. And our American friends need to understand this,” he said, speaking on a trip to the Russian Far East.

Pedestrians walk by an electronic board showing currency exchange rates of the U.S. dollar against Russian rouble in Moscow, Russia August 10, 2018. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

Pedestrians walk by an electronic board showing currency exchange rates of the U.S. dollar against Russian rouble in Moscow, Russia August 10, 2018. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

FEW GOOD RETALIATORY OPTIONS

In practice, however, there is little Russia could do to hit back at the United States without damaging its own economy or depriving its consumers of sought-after goods, and officials in Moscow have made clear they do not want to get drawn into what they describe as a mutually-damaging tit-for-tat sanctions war.

The threat of more U.S. sanctions kept the rouble under pressure on Friday, sending it crashing past two-year lows at one point before it recouped some of its losses.

The Russian central bank said the rouble’s fall to multi-month lows on news of new U.S. sanctions was a “natural reaction” and that it had the necessary tools to prevent any threat to financial stability.

One tool it said it might use was limiting market volatility by adjusting how much foreign currency it buys. Central bank data showed on Friday it had started buying less foreign currency on Wednesday, the first day of the rouble’s slide.

The fate of the U.S. bill Medvedev was referring to is not certain.

The full U.S. Congress will not be back in Washington until September, and even then, congressional aides said they did not expect the measure would pass in its entirety.

While it was difficult to assess so far in advance, they said it was more likely that only some of its provisions would be included as amendments in another piece of legislation, such as a spending bill Congress must pass before Sept. 30 to prevent a government shutdown.

(Additional reporting by Tom Balmforth in Moscow and Patricia Zengerle in Washington Writing by Andrew Osborn Editing by William Maclean)

In a first, U.S. blames Russia for cyber attacks on energy grid

An electrical line technician works on restoring power in Vilonia, Arkansas April 29, 2014. REUTERS/Carlo Alle

By Dustin Volz and Timothy Gardner

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration on Thursday blamed the Russian government for a campaign of cyber attacks stretching back at least two years that targeted the U.S. power grid, marking the first time the United States has publicly accused Moscow of hacking into American energy infrastructure.

Beginning in March 2016, or possibly earlier, Russian government hackers sought to penetrate multiple U.S. critical infrastructure sectors, including energy, nuclear, commercial facilities, water, aviation and manufacturing, according to a U.S. security alert published Thursday.

The Department of Homeland Security and FBI said in the alert that a “multi-stage intrusion campaign by Russian government cyber actors” had targeted the networks of small commercial facilities “where they staged malware, conducted spear phishing, and gained remote access into energy sector networks.” The alert did not name facilities or companies targeted.

The direct condemnation of Moscow represented an escalation in the Trump administration’s attempts to deter Russia’s aggression in cyberspace, after senior U.S. intelligence officials said in recent weeks the Kremlin believes it can launch hacking operations against the West with impunity.

It coincided with a decision Thursday by the U.S. Treasury Department to impose sanctions on 19 Russian people and five groups, including Moscow’s intelligence services, for meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and other malicious cyber attacks.

Russia in the past has denied it has tried to hack into other countries’ infrastructure, and vowed on Thursday to retaliate for the new sanctions.

‘UNPRECEDENTED AND EXTRAORDINARY’

U.S. security officials have long warned that the United States may be vulnerable to debilitating cyber attacks from hostile adversaries. It was not clear what impact the attacks had on the firms that were targeted.

But Thursday’s alert provided a link to an analysis by the U.S. cyber security firm Symantec last fall that said a group it had dubbed Dragonfly had targeted energy companies in the United States and Europe and in some cases broke into the core systems that control the companies’ operations.

Malicious email campaigns dating back to late 2015 were used to gain entry into organizations in the United States, Turkey and Switzerland, and likely other countries, Symantec said at the time, though it did not name Russia as the culprit.

The decision by the United States to publicly attribute hacking attempts of American critical infrastructure was “unprecedented and extraordinary,” said Amit Yoran, a former U.S. official who founded DHS’s Computer Emergency Response Team.

“I have never seen anything like this,” said Yoran, now chief executive of the cyber firm Tenable, said.

A White House National Security Council spokesman did not respond when asked what specifically prompted the public blaming of Russia. U.S. officials have historically been reluctant to call out such activity in part because the United States also spies on infrastructure in other parts of the world.

News of the hacking campaign targeting U.S. power companies first surfaced in June in a confidential alert to industry that described attacks on industrial firms, including nuclear plants, but did not attribute blame.

“People sort of suspected Russia was behind it, but today’s statement from the U.S. government carries a lot of weight,” said Ben Read, manager for cyber espionage analysis with cyber security company FireEye Inc.

ENGINEERS TARGETED

The campaign targeted engineers and technical staff with access to industrial controls, suggesting the hackers were interested in disrupting operations, though FireEye has seen no evidence that they actually took that step, Read said.

A former senior DHS official familiar with the government response to the campaign said that Russia’s targeting of infrastructure networks dropped off after the publication in the fall of Symantec’s research and an October government alert, which detailed technical forensics about the hacking attempts but did not name Russia.

The official declined to say whether the campaign was still ongoing or provide specifics on which targets were breached, or how close hackers may have gotten to operational control systems.

“We did not see them cross into the control networks,” DHS cyber security official Rick Driggers told reporters at a dinner on Thursday evening.

Driggers said he was unaware of any cases of control networks being compromised in the United States and that the breaches were limited to business networks. But, he added, “We know that there is intent there.”

It was not clear what Russia’s motive was. Many cyber security experts and former U.S. officials say such behavior is generally espionage-oriented with the potential, if needed, for sabotage.

Russia has shown a willingness to leverage access into energy networks for damaging effect in the past. Kremlin-linked hackers were widely blamed for two attacks on the Ukrainian energy grid in 2015 and 2016, that caused temporary blackouts for hundreds of thousands of customers and were considered first-of-their-kind assaults.

Senator Maria Cantwell, the top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, asked the Trump administration earlier this month to provide a threat assessment gauging Russian capabilities to breach the U.S. electric grid.

It was the third time Cantwell and other senators had asked for such a review. The administration has not yet responded, a spokesman for Cantwell’s office said on Thursday.

Last July, there were news reports that the Wolf Creek Nuclear Operating Corp, which operates a nuclear plant in Kansas, had been targeted by hackers from an unknown origin.

Spokeswoman Jenny Hageman declined to say at the time if the plant had been hacked but said that there had been no operational impact to the plant because operational computer systems were separate from the corporate network. Hageman on Thursday said the company does not comment on security matters.

John Keeley, a spokesman for the industry group the Nuclear Energy Institute, said: “There has been no successful cyber attack against any U.S. nuclear facility, including Wolf Creek.”

(Reporting by Dustin Volz and Timothy Gardner, additional reporting by Jim Finkle; Editing by Tom Brown, Alistair Bell and Cynthia Osterman)

Russia to amend law to classify U.S. media ‘foreign agents’

Journalists watch Russia's President Vladimir Putin on a big screen during his annual news conference in Moscow, December 20, 2012.

By Polina Nikolskaya and Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia’s parliament warned on Friday some U.S. and other foreign media could be declared “foreign agents” and obliged to regularly declare full details of their funding, finances and staffing.

Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of the State Duma, said parliament could back legislation as early as next week in response to what lawmakers view as U.S. pressure on Russian media.

“Possible restrictions will be the same as those taken by the United States,” Interfax news agency quoted him as saying.

He said some U.S. media in Russia were trying to turn U.S. public opinion against Moscow.

“We understand that it’s essential to protect the interests of our citizens and the country and we will do this in the same way as the country which lays claim to be the gold standard and mentor and which is constantly talking about freedom.”

Russian lawmakers said the move was retaliation for a demand by the U.S. Department of Justice that Kremlin-backed TV station RT register in the United States as a “foreign agent”, something Moscow has said it regards as an unfriendly act.

The U.S. action against RT came after U.S. intelligence agencies accused Russia of trying to interfere in last year’s U.S. presidential election to help President Donald Trump win the White House, something Moscow has denied.

 

RUSSIAN ELECTION

Russia faces a presidential election next March. Vladimir Putin is widely expected to stand again and to win. He remains broadly popular though critics accuse him of suppressing dissent not least by tight control of domestic media.

Lawmakers will conduct a first reading of the new restrictions on Nov. 15 and try to complete approval in two further readings by the end of next week.

U.S. and any other foreign media that fall under the new restrictions could have to regularly disclose to Russian authorities full details of their funding, finances and staffing and might be obliged to say on their social media profiles and internet sites visible in Russia that they are “foreign agents”.

The Duma earlier this year launched an investigation into whether CNN, Voice of America, Radio Liberty and “other American media” were complying with Russian law.

U.S. government-sponsored Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) said last month Moscow had threatened to brand their Russian language service projects “foreign agents” in retaliation for U.S. pressure on RT.

Russia said the same month it had dropped accusations against CNN International of violating Russian media law and that the U.S. channel could continue broadcasting in Russia.

 

San Francisco-based social network Twitter has also angered Russian authorities when it accused RT and the Sputnik news outlet of interfering in the 2016 U.S. election and banned them from buying ads on its network.

 

(Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Ralph Boulton)

 

Russia takes over U.S. compound in Moscow in retaliation over sanctions

Russia takes over U.S. compound in Moscow in retaliation over sanctions

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian authorities on Wednesday took over a summer-house compound in Moscow leased by the U.S. embassy, five days after the Kremlin ordered Washington to slash its diplomatic presence in Russia.

In retaliation for new U.S. sanctions, President Vladimir Putin has ordered the United States to cut around 60 percent of its diplomatic staff in Russia by Sept. 1, and said Moscow would seize a dacha country villa used by U.S. embassy staff and a warehouse.

U.S. employees cleared out the dacha on Tuesday and a Reuters journalist who visited the property on Wednesday saw a large metal padlock securing the front gate.

The one-storey building and courtyard, previously used by diplomatic staff at weekends and to host embassy parties, was empty and cleared of barbecue equipment and garden furniture.

Two policemen in a car in front of the main entrance said they had been instructed to guard the property and did not expect any visits from U.S. or Russian officials.

“I don’t know when this situation will change,” one of the policemen said.

Maria Olson, a spokeswoman for the U.S. embassy, had no immediate comment when contacted by Reuters. She was quoted by Russia’s Interfax news agency as saying the embassy had retrieved all its possessions from the villa, and from the warehouse.

Putin said on Sunday Russia had ordered the United States to cut 755 of its 1,200 diplomatic staff in its embassy and consular operations, though many of those let go will be Russian citizens, with the United States allowed to choose who leaves.

The ultimatum issued by the Russian leader is a display to voters at home that he is prepared to stand up to Washington – but is also carefully calibrated to avoid directly affecting the U.S. investment he needs, or burning his bridges with U.S. President Donald Trump.

One local Russian employee at the embassy, who declined to be named when speaking to the media, said staff were still in the dark about their future employment.

“They say they will have to cut a lot of jobs – not just diplomats and technical staff, but also in the ancillary services, including drivers, janitors and cooks,” he said. “I hope I won’t be in trouble, but who knows.”

(Reporting by Jack Stubbs and Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Russia causing cyber mayhem, should face retaliation: ex-UK spy chief

The director of Britain's GCHQ Robert Hannigan delivers a speech at Government Communications Headquarters in Cheltenham, November 17, 2015.

By Michael Holden

LONDON (Reuters) – Russia is causing cyberspace mayhem and should face retaliation if it continues to undermine democratic institutions in the West, the former head of Britain’s GCHQ spy agency said on Monday.

Russia denies allegations from governments and intelligence services that it is behind a growing number of cyber attacks on commercial and political targets around the world, including the hackings of recent U.S. and French presidential election campaigns.

Asked if the Russian authorities were a threat to the democratic process, Robert Hannigan, who stepped down as head of the UK’s intelligence service in March, said: “Yes … There is a disproportionate amount of mayhem in cyberspace coming from Russia from state activity.”

In his first interview since leaving GCHQ, Hannigan told BBC radio that it was positive that French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had publicly “called this out recently”.

Standing alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin in May, Macron said state-funded Russian news outlets had sought to destabilize his campaign while the head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency said last week it was expecting Russia to try to influence the German election in September.

“Ultimately people will have to push back against Russian state activity and show that it’s unacceptable,” he said.

“It doesn’t have to be by cyber retaliation, but it may be that is necessary at some time in the future. It may be sanctions and other measures, just to put down some red lines and say that this behavior is unacceptable.”

Hannigan also said it would be a mistake to force social media companies to allow intelligence agencies to access services protected by encryption through so-called “back door” access.

“The best you can do with end-to-end encryption is work with companies in a cooperative way to find ways around it frankly,” he said. He said such “back doors” would weaken systems.

Hannigan also said governments should wait to see how a global working group on tackling online extremism established by Facebook, Google’s YouTube, Twitter and Microsoft performed before seeking new laws.

“Legislation is a blunt last resort because frankly extremism is very difficult to define in law and you could spend all your time in court arguing about whether a particular video crosses the line or not,” he said.

Last month, Germany approved a plan to fine social media networks up to 50 million euros ($57 million) if they failed to remove hateful postings promptly. Britain has also mooted bringing in possible sanctions for tech firms that failed to remove extremist content.

 

 

(Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

 

German military can use ‘offensive measures’ against cyber attacks: minister

German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen in Berlin, Germany, March 22, 2017. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

BERLIN (Reuters) – The German military has the authority to respond with “offensive measures” if its computer networks are attacked, German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen said on Wednesday, amid growing concerns among German lawmakers about control of such actions.

Von der Leyen, speaking at the opening ceremony for Germany’s new cyber command in Bonn, gave no details of what kind of retaliation she had in mind.

“If the German military’s networks are attacked, then we can defend ourselves. As soon as an attack endangers the functional and operational readiness of combat forces, we can respond with offensive measures,” she said.

She added that the German military could be called in to help in the event of cyber attacks on other governmental institutions. During foreign missions, its actions would be governed and bounded by the underlying parliamentary mandate.

Any legal questions would be addressed by the military in close cooperation with other government agencies, she added.

The new Bonn-based command has an initial staff of 260 that will grow to around 13,500 in July.

Von der Leyen’s decision to sanction offensive cyber actions in principle has caused some concerns among German lawmakers, including Agnieszka Brugger, a member of the pro-environment Greens and member of the defense committee.

Military ombudsman Hans-Peter Bartels, who fields complaints from soldiers for parliament, told the Neue Osnabrueckner Zeitung newspaper on Wednesday that every offensive measure required explicit approval by the parliament since Germany’s military is a so-called “parliamentary army”.

German officials told reporters earlier this week that the government was scrambling to respond to serious and growing cyber threats, but civilian officials said they lacked the legal framework to retaliate with cyber attacks of their own.

However, von der Leyen made clear on Wednesday that she was convinced the authorities were clear in the military realm.

Deputy Defence Minister Katrin Suder told reporters on Monday that existing laws applied, even in cyberspace.

Von der Leyen said Berlin was increasing expenditure to keep up with technical innovations.

Germany’s current military budget included 1.6 billion euros for information technology-related items, ranging from new radios and hardware to service contracts, and spending was slated to increase significantly in 2018, she said.

The military also spent around 1 billion euros a year on personnel.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Stephen Powell)

North Korea fires four missiles toward Japan, angering Tokyo and South Korea

A woman walks past a television broadcasting a news report on North Korea firing ballistic missiles, at a railway station in Seoul, South Korea,

By Ju-min Park and Kaori Kaneko

SEOUL/TOKYO (Reuters) – North Korea fired four ballistic missiles into the sea off Japan’s northwest coast on Monday, angering South Korea and Japan, days after it promised retaliation over U.S.-South Korea military drills it sees as preparation for war.

South Korea’s military said the missiles were unlikely to have been intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), which can reach the United States. They flew on average 1,000 km (620 miles) and reached an altitude of 260 km (160 miles).

Some landed as close as 300 km (190 miles) from Japan’s northwest coast, Japan’s Defence Minister Tomomi Inada said in Tokyo.

The United States and Japan have requested a United Nations Security Council meeting on the launches, which will likely be scheduled for Wednesday, diplomats said.

The U.S. military on Monday left open the possibility of additional launch attempts.

“There were four that landed. There may be a higher number of launches that we’re not commenting on. But four landed and splashed in the Sea of Japan,” Navy Captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, told a news briefing.

Condemning the launches as further “provocative behavior,” White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters the United States was taking steps to enhance defense against ballistic missiles, including deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery in South Korea.

South Korea’s acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn said Seoul would swiftly deploy the anti-missile system despite angry objections from China. A U.S. official said the system could be installed far earlier than an original fall target date.

Japan also plans to reinforce its missile defenses and is considering buying either THAAD or building a ground-based version of the Aegis system deployed on warships.

Beefed-up missile defense is among economic and military options being weighed in a White House review of policy toward nuclear-armed North Korea expected to be completed in coming weeks, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said “strong protests” had been lodged with North Korea, which has carried out a series of nuclear and missile tests in defiance of U.N. resolutions.

“It is an extremely dangerous action,” Abe told parliament.

The missiles were launched from the Tongchang-ri region near North Korea’s border with China, South Korean military spokesman Roh Jae-cheon told a briefing, but said it was too early to say what their relatively low altitude indicated.

U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, also told Reuters there were no indications so far that North Korea had tested an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the U.S. mainland.

Shortly before taking office, President Donald Trump tweeted “It won’t happen!” in January after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said the North was close to testing an ICBM.

“We deplore the continued violation of Security Council resolutions by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, including the most recent launches of ballistic missiles. The DPRK leadership should refrain from further provocations and return to full compliance with its international obligations,” U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq said on Monday.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a daily news briefing that China, which is holding its annual meeting of the National People’s Congress, had noted North Korea’s action.

“All sides should exercise restraint and not do anything to irritate each other to worsen regional tensions,” Geng said, referring to both the missile launches and U.S.-South Korean military exercises.

JOINT DRILLS

North Korea had threatened to take “strong retaliatory measures” after South Korea and the United States began annual joint military drills on Wednesday that test their defensive readiness against possible aggression from the North.

North Korea criticizes the drills and has previously conducted missile launches to coincide with them.

In a letter to the U.N. Security Council on Monday, North Korea’s U.N. Ambassador Ja Song Nam warned that “the situation on the Korean Peninsula is again inching to the brink of a nuclear war” due to the military drills.

Ja again requested that the Security Council meet to discuss the drills. Previous such requests have gone unanswered by the Security Council. The letter did not mention North Korea’s missile launches on Monday.

Last year, North Korea fired a long-range rocket from Tongchang-ri that put an object into orbit. The United Nations condemned that launch for violating resolutions banning the use of ballistic missile technology.

North Korea test-fired a new type of missile into the sea last month and has said it would continue to launch new strategic weapons.

Trump’s national security team is reviewing a wide range of options to counter the missile threat. But an administration official played down the prospects for any direct military action, such as pre-emptive missile strikes on North Korean launch sites or reintroducing nuclear weapons to South Korea, as highlighted in recent news reports.

Instead, the focus is expected to be on imposing new sanctions on North Korea and pressing China to do more to rein in Pyongyang, the official said. Previous administrations have made similar efforts but have failed to curb North Korea’s nuclear and missile advances.

The United States withdrew nuclear weapons from South Korea in 1991 before the rival Koreas signed a declaration on denuclearization of the peninsula. North Korea walked away from the agreement, citing the threat of invasion by the United States.

North Korea conducted its fifth and most powerful nuclear test last September. State media said after that test Pyongyang had used a nuclear warhead small enough to mount on a ballistic missile.

(Additional reporting by Christine Kim and James Pearson in Seoul, Tim Kelly in Tokyo, Ben Blanchard in Beijing, Phil Stewart, David Brunnstrom and Matt Spetalnick in Washington and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing by Jack Kim; Editing by James Dalgleish)

Iran warns of retaliation if U.S. breaches nuclear deal

Iran Supreme Leader

By Bozorgmehr Sharafedin

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Extending U.S. sanctions on Iran for 10 years would breach the Iranian nuclear agreement, Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei said on Wednesday, warning that Tehran would retaliate if the sanctions are approved.

The U.S. House of Representatives re-authorized last week the Iran Sanctions Act, or ISA, for 10 years. The law was first adopted in 1996 to punish investments in Iran’s energy industry and deter Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

The Iran measure will expire at the end of 2016 if it is not renewed. The House bill must still be passed by the Senate and signed by President Barack Obama to become law.

Iran and world powers concluded the nuclear agreement, also known as JCPOA, last year. It imposed curbs on Iran’s nuclear program in return for easing sanctions that have badly hurt its economy.

“The current U.S. government has breached the nuclear deal in many occasions,” Khamenei said, addressing a gathering of members of the Revolutionary Guards, according to his website.

“The latest is extension of sanctions for 10 years, that if it happens, would surely be against JCPOA, and the Islamic Republic would definitely react to it.”

The U.S. lawmakers passed the bill one week after Republican Donald Trump was elected U.S. president. Republicans in Congress unanimously opposed the agreement, along with about two dozen Democrats, and Trump has also criticized it.

Lawmakers from both parties said they hoped bipartisan support for a tough line against Iran would continue under the new president.

President-elect Trump once said during his campaign that he would “rip up” the agreement, drawing a harsh reaction from Khamenei, who said if that happens, Iran would “set fire” to the deal.

The House of Representatives also passed a bill last week that would block the sale of commercial aircraft by Boeing <BA.N> and Airbus <AIR.PA> to Iran.

The White House believes that the legislation would be a violation of the nuclear pact and has said Obama would veto the measure even if it did pass the Senate.

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin, editing by Larry King)