Turkey will retaliate if U.S. imposes sanctions over S-400s: minister

FILE PHOTO: First parts of a Russian S-400 missile defense system are unloaded from a Russian plane at Murted Airport, known as Akinci Air Base, near Ankara, Turkey, July 12, 2019. Turkish Military/Turkish Defence Ministry/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

By Ece Toksabay and Tuvan Gumrukcu

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey would retaliate against what it called an unacceptable threat of U.S. sanctions over Ankara’s purchase of Russian S-400 missile defenses, its foreign minister said on Monday, adding he thinks President Donald Trump wants to avoid such measures.

Turkey began receiving deliveries of the surface-to-air S-400 systems earlier this month, prompting the United States to begin removing the NATO ally from its F-35 stealth fighter program over security concerns.

Washington says it is concerned that S-400 software will compromise its F-35s to the benefit of Russia. While several Republican and Democratic U.S. lawmakers have pressed for sanctions, Trump has equivocated in recent days.

“If the United States portrays an adversarial attitude towards us, we will take retaliatory measures, as we’ve told them. This is not a threat or a bluff,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in an interview with broadcaster TGRT Haber.

“We are not a country that will bow down to those who show animosity towards Turkey,” he said, reiterating a threat of retaliation that Turkey made last month.

Cavusoglu added that he did not expect the U.S. administration to take such action.

“Trump does not want to impose sanctions on Turkey and he frequently says that his administration and the previous U.S. administration is also responsible for Turkey not being able to buy Patriot systems. This is true,” Cavusoglu said.

The United States announced last week it was beginning the process of removing Turkey from the program for the F-35 stealth jets, the most advanced aircraft in the U.S. arsenal, which is used by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and other partner countries.

Turkey, like some other NATO partners, was part of the manufacturing supply chain for the aircraft, producing some 900 parts and Turkish defense companies are set to lose work worth billions of dollars.

A U.S. official said it would cost some $500 million to $600 million to shift F-35 manufacturing from Turkey.

RUSSIAN ALTERNATIVE

The delivery of S-400 components is ongoing, with 14 shipments of related equipment having landed in Turkey over the last nine days. Deliveries are set to continue through April 2020.

Separately, Sergei Chemezov, head of Russia’s Rostec state conglomerate, said that Russia and Turkey were in talks about the possibility of jointly manufacturing some components of the S-400 system in Turkey.

“Moscow and Ankara are holding consultations in the area of the licensed production of the S-400 air defense system component parts,” Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency quoted Chemezov as saying.

“Besides, Turkey is interested in the latest Russian combat modules, air defense systems of various ranges, as well as anti-tank systems. Negotiations are underway for Russia to help the Republic of Turkey in creating its national air defense and long-range missile defense systems,” he said.

Chemezov added that Moscow was ready for various formats of technological cooperation, including in such high-tech areas as the aerospace industry, helicopter construction, and energy.

(Writing by Ece Toksabay; Editing by Jonathan Spicer and Frances Kerry)

Europeans urge Iran to abide by nuclear pact; Israel says preparing military

FILE PHOTO - French President Emmanuel Macron speaks to the media ahead of a European Union leaders summit that aims to select candidates for top EU institution jobs, in Brussels, Belgium June 30, 2019. REUTERS/Johanna Geron

By John Irish and Parisa Hafezi

PARIS/DUBAI (Reuters) – European signatories to a nuclear pact with Iran said on Tuesday they were “extremely concerned” by Tehran’s apparent breach of the 2015 deal, as Israel said it was preparing for possible involvement in any confrontation between Iran and the United States.

Iran announced this week it has amassed more low-enriched uranium than is permitted under the nuclear pact, a move that prompted U.S. President Donald Trump to say Iran was “playing with fire”.

“We regret this decision by Iran, which calls into question an essential instrument of nuclear non-proliferation,” the foreign ministers of Germany, France and Britain said in a joint statement with the EU’s High Representative on Iran. “We urge Iran to reverse this step and to refrain from further measures that undermine the nuclear deal,” they said.

Tensions between Washington and Tehran have increased since Trump pulled Washington out of the pact last year and moved to bar all international sales of Iranian oil. Washington also blames Iran for attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf, something Tehran denies.

The European signatories to the accord have sought to pull back the two longstanding foes from direct confrontation, fearing a mistake could lead to war accidentally.

Israel has encouraged the Trump administration to press ahead with sanctions against its arch-foe Iran, predicting that Tehran will eventually renegotiate a more limiting nuclear deal.

But Foreign Minister Israel Katz told an international security forum that Iran might accidentally stumble out of what he termed the “gray zone” of contained confrontation.

“It should be taken into account that mistaken calculations by the (Iranian) regime … are liable to bring about a shift from the ‘gray zone’ to the ‘red zone’ – that is, a military conflagration,” he said in a speech to the Herzliya Conference.

“We must be prepared for this, and thus the State of Israel continues to devote itself to building up its military might for the event that it will have to respond to escalation scenarios.”

Israel has long threatened to take preemptive military action to deny Iran the means of making nuclear weapons. Tehran says it has no such designs. One of its senior lawmakers warned on Monday that Israel would be destroyed within “only half an hour” should the United States attack Iran.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif denies that Iran is in violation of the nuclear accord by amassing more low-enriched uranium, saying Iran is exercising its right to respond following the U.S. pullout.

By exceeding the limit, Tehran could prompt the return of all international sanctions on Iran but one European diplomat, asked if Europe would trigger a dispute resolution mechanism that is part of the accord, said:

“Not for now. We want to defuse the crisis.”

A second diplomat said Britain, France and Germany would focus on bringing Iran back into compliance and that they wanted to gain more time for dialogue.

“In the immediate term, Iran must return to its obligations. There is room for dialogue,” a French diplomatic source added.

China, like France a signatory to the deal, said it regretted Iran’s move but urged all parties to exercise restraint and said the U.S. policy of increasing pressure on Iran was the “root cause of the current tensions”.

IRANIAN DEMANDS

The nuclear deal lifted most international sanctions against Iran in return for curbs on its nuclear work. It aimed to extend the time Tehran would need to produce a nuclear bomb, if it chose to, from roughly 2-3 months to a year.

Iran’s main demand – in talks with the European parties to the deal and as a precondition to any talks with the United States – is to be allowed to sell its oil at the levels before Washington pulled out of the deal and restored sanctions.

Iranian crude exports were around 300,000 barrels per day or less in late June, industry sources said, a fraction of the more than 2.5 million bpd Iran shipped in April 2018, the month before Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal.

Iran says it will breach the deal’s nuclear curbs one by one until it is able to sell that amount of oil, saying this is the least it should be able to expect from an accord that offered economic gains in exchange for nuclear restrictions.

Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency reported on Monday that the Islamic Republic’s enriched uranium stockpile had passed the 300kg (661 lb) limit allowed under the deal.

“We have NOT violated the #JCPOA,” Zarif wrote on Twitter, referring to the deal by the abbreviation of its formal title, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Iran’s parliament speaker Ali Larijani accused Trump of trying to bully Tehran with his remark about playing with fire, and said such language would only made Iran stronger.

Zarif reacted with exasperation to a White House accusation that Tehran had long violated the terms of the deal.

“Seriously?” he said in a one-word message on Twitter, after White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement that “there is little doubt that even before the deal’s existence, Iran was violating its terms.”

Her comment contrasted with CIA Director Gina Haspel&rsquo’s testimony in January to the Senate Intelligence Committee that “at the moment, technically, they are in compliance.”

(Additional reporting by Francois Murphy in Vienna, Writing by William Maclean and Alistair Bell; Editing by Jon Boyle and Grant McCool)

Last-ditch talks to keep Iran under nuclear limits headed for failure

Iran's top nuclear negotiator Abbas Araqchi and Secretary General of the European External Action Service (EEAS) Helga Schmit attend a meeting of the JCPOA Joint Commission in Vienna, Austria, June 28, 2019. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

By John Irish and Francois Murphy

VIENNA (Reuters) – Last-ditch talks to persuade Tehran not to exceed nuclear limits within days were on course for failure on Friday, as Iranian officials said their demands had not been met and Washington rebuffed European calls to ease sanctions to allow negotiations.

A week after Washington called off air strikes just minutes before impact, diplomats say Iran is on course within days to exceed the threshold of enriched uranium allowed under its nuclear deal with world powers, which Washington quit last year.

Any such move would reshape the diplomatic landscape, at a time when European officials are warning that a small mistake on either side could push the United States and Iran to war.

Iranian officials met in Vienna with representatives of the countries that are still party to the nuclear deal — Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China. The Iranians repeated their demand that they be allowed to sell oil.

The talks were a “last chance for the remaining parties … to gather and see how they can meet their commitments towards Iran,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said.

Despite abandoning the deal, Washington has demanded European countries force Iran to continue complying with it. Iran says it cannot do so unless the Europeans provide it with some way to receive the deal’s promised economic benefits.

“For one year we exercised patience. Now it is the Europeans’ turn to exercise patience,” Mousavi said. “They should try to find solutions, practical solutions.”

French President Emmanuel Macron said this week that he would ask U.S. President Donald Trump to ease sanctions to allow negotiations to begin. But the plea seemed to have fallen on deaf ears, with Trump’s Iran envoy saying on Friday sanctions would remain in place to end Iranian oil exports altogether.

“We will sanction any imports of Iranian crude oil… There are right now no oil waivers in place,” Brian Hook, the U.S. Special Representative On Iran, told reporters in London.

European countries, which opposed Trump’s decision to abandon the deal and reimpose sanctions, have promised to find ways to allow Iran access to trade in return for continuing to comply. But in practice, the effort has failed, with major European companies canceling all plans to invest in Iran.

DEADLINES

Iran has set a number of deadlines in recent weeks after which it would cease complying with specific terms of the nuclear deal. The first expired on Thursday, the date Tehran said the quantity of enriched uranium it is holding could exceed the deal’s permissible threshold.

Diplomats in Vienna, headquarters of the U.N. nuclear agency IAEA, told Reuters on Thursday that the latest data from inspectors suggested the threshold had not yet been breached, but it could be as soon as Saturday or Sunday.

Another deadline, when Iran says it could enrich uranium to a purity forbidden under the deal, expires on July 7.

Iran says that if it does exceed thresholds, the steps would be reversible and it still aims to keep the deal in place.

The crisis between Iran and the United States that began with Trump’s withdrawal from the pact has escalated in recent weeks after Washington sharply tightened its sanctions from the start of May to halt all Iranian oil exports.

The Trump administration argues that the 2015 agreement reached under his predecessor Barack Obama was too weak because many terms are not permanent and it excludes non-nuclear issues such as missiles and Iran’s regional behavior. Washington says the aim of sanctions is to force Tehran to renegotiate.

Tehran says there can be no talks as long as sanctions are in place and Washington is ignoring the deal it already signed.

The confrontation took on a military dimension in recent weeks, with Washington blaming Tehran for attacks on ships in the Gulf, which Iran denies. Iran shot down a U.S. drone last week, saying it had entered its air space. Washington said the drone was in international skies, and Trump ordered, then aborted, retaliatory air strikes on Iranian targets.

Any move by Iran that violated the terms of the nuclear deal would put pressure on the Europeans to take sides.

“We will repeat to the Iranians that nuclear issues are not negotiable. We want them to stay in the accord, but we won’t accept them messing us around,” a senior European diplomat said before Friday’s meeting.

The cornerstone of European efforts to placate the Iranians is the creation of INSTEX, a mechanism to use barter to allow some trade that would avoid entanglement in U.S. sanctions.

Almost six months after it was created, it is still not operational and diplomats say it will be able to handle only small volumes for items like medicine, not the large oil sales Iran is seeking.

“If INSTEX fails to meet Iran’s demands within the framework of the nuclear deal, we will take the next steps more decisively,” Mousavi said, adding that “the implementation of the EU’s trade mechanism has been delayed due to some lack of commitments”.

(Additional reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin and Guy Faulconbridge in London and Parisa Hafezi in Dubai; Editing by Peter Graff)

Iran on course to exceed nuclear pact limit within days: diplomats

FILE PHOTO: A general view of Bushehr nuclear power plant, 1,200 km (746 miles) south of Tehran, August 21, 2010. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi

By Francois Murphy and Christopher Gallagher

VIENNA/TOKYO (Reuters) – Iran is on course to breach a threshold in its nuclear agreement with world powers within days by accumulating more enriched uranium than permitted, although it has not done so yet, diplomats said, citing the latest data from U.N. inspectors.

France, one of the European powers caught in the middle in an escalating confrontation between Washington and Tehran, said it would ask U.S. President Donald Trump to suspend some sanctions on Iran to allow negotiations to defuse the crisis.

A week after Trump called off air strikes on Iran minutes before impact, world leaders are trying to pull the two countries back from the brink, warning that a mistake on either side could lead to war.

“I want to convince Trump that it is in his interest to re-open a negotiation process (and) go back on certain sanctions to give negotiations a chance,” French President Emmanuel Macron said in Japan, where he is due to meet Trump on the sidelines of a summit in coming days.

A move by Tehran that clearly breached its 2015 nuclear agreement with world powers would transform the diplomatic landscape and probably force European countries to take sides.

Macron said he had two priorities: de-escalating military tension and keeping Iran from violating the accord, which European countries still hope to save even though Trump ignored their advice and quit it last year.

The latest data from U.N. inspectors suggested Iran had not yet violated the deal on Thursday, despite having named it as a day when it might do so.

“They haven’t reached the limit… It’s more likely to be at the weekend if they do it,” said one diplomat in Vienna, headquarters of the U.N. nuclear agency IAEA, on condition of anonymity.

“OBLITERATION”

The United States withdrew from the pact last year under which Iran accepted curbs on its nuclear program in return for access to international trade. Iran has said it wants to abide by the agreement but cannot do so indefinitely as new U.S. sanctions mean it is receiving none of the benefits.

The escalating crisis has put the United States in the position of demanding its European allies enforce Iranian compliance with an accord Washington itself rejects.

The United States sharply tightened its sanctions last month, ordering all countries to halt purchases of Iranian oil, the main source of revenue to feed Iran’s 80 million people.

Trump’s aborted air strikes last week were the culmination of weeks of heightened military tension. Washington accused Iran of being behind attacks on ships in the Gulf, which it denies.

Last week Iran shot down a U.S. drone it said was in its air space. The United States said it was in international skies.

Since the aborted air strikes last week there have been no major incidents, but rhetoric on both sides has become menacing.

This week Trump threatened Iran’s “obliteration” if it attacked U.S. interests while Rouhani, typically the mild-mannered face of the Tehran government, called White House policy “mentally retarded”. Trump later said he hoped to avoid war, which would be short and not involve boots on the ground.

IRANIAN RESPONSE

In the latest volley in the war of words, Iran’s parliament speaker Ali Larijani said the downing of the U.S. drone had taught Washington the cost of violating Iranian air space.

“Iran’s reaction will be stronger if they repeat their mistake of violating our borders,” Iran’s Tasnim news agency quoted Larijani as saying.

The Trump administration says its ultimate goal is to force Iran back to the table for negotiations. It argues that the 2015 deal, negotiated under Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, was too weak because it is not permanent and does not cover non-nuclear issues, such as Iran’s missile program and regional behavior.

Iran says it cannot negotiate further unless the United States observes the existing agreement and lifts sanctions.

Tehran says Washington would be to blame if it ends up breaching the limit on uranium stockpiles, since the deal allows it to sell excess uranium abroad to reduce its holdings, but U.S. sanctions have prevented this.

It has set a separate deadline of July 7 when it could breach another major threshold, on the level of purity of uranium it has enriched.

(Additional reporting by Christopher Gallagher in Tokyo; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Jon Boyle)

No sign of progress at NATO in U.S.-Turkey dispute over Russian defenses

Turkey and U.S. flags are seen in this picture illustration taken August 25, 2018. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

By Phil Stewart

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The United States and Turkey appeared to make no progress during talks at NATO headquarters on Wednesday toward resolving a major dispute over Ankara’s plans to acquire a Russian air defense system, just ahead of its expected July delivery.

The United States says Turkey’s acquisition of Russia’sS-400 air defenses poses a threat to the Lockheed Martin Corp’s F-35 stealthy fighters, which Turkey also planned to buy. Washington says Ankara cannot have both and has started the process of removing Turkey from the F-35 program, including halting training of Turkish pilots in the United States on the advanced, stealth aircraft. Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper warned his Turkish counterpart, Hulusi Akar, during closed-door talks on Wednesday that Turkish acquisition would also have an economic impact, a senior U.S. defense official said, in a nod to expected U.S. sanctions.

“The secretary was very firm, once again, that Turkey will not have both the S-400 and the F-35. And if they accept the S-400 they should accept ramifications not only to the F-35 program but also to their economic situation,” the official said.

Buying military equipment from Russia leaves Turkey vulnerable to U.S. retribution under a 2017 law known as the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA.

Turkey has played down U.S. concerns about the security of the F-35 and insists it cannot back away from the S-400 purchase. U.S. offers to supply it with Patriot missiles, manufactured by Raytheon Co, have failed to sway Ankara.

Asked if Turkey changed its position in any way, the official said: “There were no surprises but…the minister and the secretary were very clear with each other.”

ERDOGAN-TRUMP MEETING

If the United States follows through with removing Turkey from the F-35 program, and imposes sanctions on the NATO ally, it would be one of the most significant ruptures in recent history in the relationship between the two nations, experts said.

But strains in ties between Washington and Ankara already extend beyond the F-35 to include conflicting strategy in Syria, Iran sanctions and the detention of U.S. consular staff in Turkey.

Turkey’s defense ministry issued a short statement, acknowledging that the F-35 came up in discussions, as well as Syria and “other bilateral security and defense cooperation issues.”

The ministry said Esper and Akar “emphasized the importance of maintaining dialogue between Turkey and the United States.”

The head of Russian state arms exporter Rosoboronexport, Alexander Mikheev, was quoted on Wednesday saying Russia would make first delivery of the S-400 missile systems to Turkey in July.

With the clock ticking, attention will shift to an expected meeting between Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and U.S. President Donald Trump at the G20 summit in Japan this week. Erdogan has said he expected to discuss the issue with Trump.

One senior NATO diplomat said that was probably the last chance of finding a solution.

But officials in Ankara and Washington are cautious.

“Everything indicates that Russia is going to deliver the system to Turkey and that will have consequences,” Kay Bailey Hutchison, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, said in Brussels on Tuesday.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart, additional reporting by Robin Emmott in Brussels, Ezgi Erkoyun in Istanbul; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Alistair Bell)

Trump threatens “obliteration” as Iran slams sanctions on Khamenei

FILE PHOTO: Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei waves his hand as he arrives to deliver a speech during a ceremony marking the 30th death anniversary of the founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran, Iran June 4, 2019. Official Khamenei website/Handout via REUTERS

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump threatened on Tuesday to obliterate parts of Iran if the Islamic Republic attacked “anything American”, as Iran said the latest U.S. sanctions had closed off any chance of diplomacy.

“Any attack by Iran on anything American will be met with great and overwhelming force,” Trump tweeted just days the United States came within minutes of bombing Iranian targets.

“In some areas, overwhelming will mean obliteration,” the U.S. president tweeted.

Trump on Monday signed an executive order imposing sanctions against Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other senior figures. Sanctions against Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif are expected later this week.

“Imposing useless sanctions on Iran’s Supreme Leader and the commander of Iran’s diplomacy is the permanent closure of the path of diplomacy,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi tweeted.

“Trump’s desperate administration is destroying the established international mechanisms for maintaining world peace and security.”

The moves came after Iran shot down a U.S. drone last week and Trump called off a retaliatory air strike minutes before impact. It would have been the first time the United States had bombed Iran in decades of hostility between them.

Trump said last week that he had decided at the last minute that too many people would die.

In a televised address on Tuesday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said sanctions against Khamenei would have no practical impact because the cleric had no assets abroad.

Rouhani, a pragmatist who won two elections on promises to open Iran up to the world, described the U.S. moves as desperate and called the White House “mentally retarded” – an insult that other Iranian officials have used in the past about Trump, but a departure from Rouhani’s own comparatively measured tone.

Rouhani and his cabinet run Iran’s day-to-day affairs, while Khamenei, in power since 1989, is Iran’s ultimate authority.

“The White House actions mean it is mentally retarded,” Rouhani said. “Tehran’s strategic patience does not mean we have fear.”

U.S. SANCTIONS

The United States has imposed crippling economic sanctions against Iran since last year, when Trump withdrew from an agreement between Tehran and world powers to curb Iran’s nuclear program in return for the lifting of sanctions.

The crisis has escalated sharply since last month, when the Trump administration tightened the sanctions, ordering all countries to halt purchases of Iranian oil.

That has effectively starved the Iranian economy of the main source of revenue Tehran uses to import food for its 81 million people, and left Iran’s pragmatic faction with no benefits to show for its nuclear agreement.

Washington says the 2015 agreement reached under Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama did not go far enough because it is not permanent and does not cover issues beyond the nuclear program, such as missiles and regional behavior.

Iran says there is no point negotiating with Washington when it has abandoned a deal that was already reached.

The downing of the U.S. drone – which Iran says was over its air space and the United States says was international skies – followed weeks of rising tensions that had begun to take on a military dimension.

The United States and some regional allies have blamed Iran for attacks on tankers in the Gulf, which Tehran denies. Washington’s European allies have repeatedly warned both sides of the danger that a small mistake could lead to war.

(Reporting by Parisa Hafezi; Writing by Peter Graff and Kevin Liffey; Editing by Jon Boyle)

Iran says U.S. sanctions on Khamenei mean end of diplomacy

FILE PHOTO: Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei waves his hand as he arrives to deliver a speech during a ceremony marking the 30th death anniversary of the founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran, Iran June 4, 2019. Official Khamenei website/Handout via REUTERS

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) – New U.S. sanctions against Iran’s supreme leader and foreign minister have closed off diplomacy, Iran said on Tuesday, blaming the United States for abandoning the only route to peace just days after the two foes came within minutes of conflict.

U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order imposing sanctions on Monday against Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other senior figures. Sanctions against Foreign Minister Mohmmad Javad Zarif are expected later this week.

The moves came after Iran shot down a U.S. drone last week and Trump called off a retaliatory air strike minutes before impact, which would have been the first time the United States had bombed Iran in decades of hostility between them.

Trump said he decided at the last minute that too many people would die.

“Imposing useless sanctions on Iran’s Supreme Leader and the commander of Iran’s diplomacy is the permanent closure of the path of diplomacy,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said on Twitter.

“Trump’s desperate administration is destroying the established international mechanisms for maintaining world peace and security,” Mousavi tweeted.

In a televised address, President Hassan Rouhani said sanctions against Khamenei would have no practical impact because the cleric had no assets abroad.

Rouhani, a pragmatist who won two elections on promises to open Iran up to the world, described the U.S. moves as desperate and called the White House “mentally retarded” – an insult Iranian officials have used in the past about Trump but a departure from Rouhani’s own comparatively measured tone.

Rouhani and his cabinet run Iran’s day-to-day affairs, while Khamenei, in power since 1989, is Iran’s ultimate authority.

“The White House actions mean it is mentally retarded,” Rouhani said. “Tehran’s strategic patience does not mean we have fear.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the situation around Iran was developing toward a dangerous scenario, RIA news agency reported.

“OPEN DOOR”

Trump’s hawkish national security adviser, John Bolton, visiting Israel, repeated earlier offers to hold talks, as long as Iran was willing to go beyond the terms of a 2015 nuclear deal with world powers which Trump abandoned last year.

“The president has held the door open to real negotiations to completely and verifiably eliminate Iran’s nuclear weapons program, its pursuit of ballistic missile delivery systems, its support for international terrorism and other malign behavior worldwide,” Bolton said in Jerusalem. “All that Iran needs to do is to walk through that open door.”

The United States has imposed crippling economic sanctions against Iran since last year, when Trump withdrew from an agreement between Tehran and world powers to curb Iran’s nuclear program in return for the lifting of sanctions.

The crisis has escalated sharply since last month, when the Trump administration tightened the sanctions, ordering all countries to halt purchases of Iranian oil.

That has effectively starved the Iranian economy of the main source of revenue Tehran uses to import food for its 81 million people, and left Iran’s pragmatic faction with no benefits to show for its nuclear agreement.

Washington says the 2015 agreement reached under Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama did not go far enough because it is not permanent and does not cover issues beyond the nuclear program, such as missiles and regional behavior.

Iran says there is no point negotiating with Washington when it has abandoned a deal that was already reached.

The downing of the U.S. drone – which Iran says was over its air space and the United States says was international skies – was the culmination of weeks of rising tensions that had begun to take on a military dimension.

The United States and some regional allies have blamed Iran for attacks on tankers in the Gulf, which Tehran denies. Washington’s European allies have repeatedly warned both sides of the danger that a small mistake could lead to war.

Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev came to Iran’s support, saying the drone was in Iranian airspace when it was shot down and that the evidence on the tanker attacks was of poor quality and unprofessional, not enough to draw conclusions.

During a visit to Jerusalem, Patrushev also said it was unacceptable to portray Iran as a threat to international security and called for restraint to help defuse the situation.

Washington says forcing Iran to the table is the purpose of its sanctions. Tehran has said it is willing to talk if the United States lifts the new sanctions first, although Tuesday’s statements appear to toughen that stance.

Trump is leaving a path open to diplomacy with Iran but Tehran would be making a mistake if it interprets his restraint over the downing of a drone as weakness, U.S. disarmament ambassador Robert Wood told a conference in Geneva.

“We will not initiate a conflict against Iran, nor do we intend to deny Iran the right to defend its airspace but if Iran continues to attack us, our response will be decisive,” he said.

U.S. officials have launched a diplomatic campaign to rally their allies in the face of the escalating crisis. Foreign Secretary Mike Pompeo jetted to the Middle East on Monday to meet leaders of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Gulf Arab states that favor the toughest possible line against Iran.

The U.S. envoy on Iran, Brian Hook, is visiting Europe, where he is likely to get a frostier reception from allies who support the nuclear deal. They believe Trump’s decision to quit the accord was a mistake that has strengthened Iran’s hardline faction, weakened its pragmatists and endangered regional peace.

Iran says it still aims to comply with the nuclear deal, but cannot do so indefinitely unless it receives some benefits. It has given European countries until July 8 to find a way to shield its economy from U.S. sanctions, or else it will enrich uranium to levels banned under the deal.

(Reporting by Parisa Hafezi; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Jon Boyle/Mark Heinrich)

Iran says U.S. cyber attacks failed, hints talks are possible

FILE PHOTO: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani delivers a speech at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) in Dushanbe, Tajikistan June 15, 2019. REUTERS/Mukhtar Kholdorbekov/File Photo

By Stephen Kalin and Bozorgmehr Sharafedin

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia/LONDON (Reuters) – Iran said on Monday U.S. cyber attacks on its military had failed, while also hinting that it could be willing to discuss new concessions with Washington if the United States were to lift sanctions and offer new incentives.

The longtime foes have come the closest in years to a direct military confrontation in the past week with the shooting down of a U.S. drone by Iran. U.S. President Donald Trump aborted a retaliatory strike just minutes before impact.

U.S. media have reported that the United States launched cyber attacks even as Trump called off the air strike. The Washington Post said on Saturday that the cyber strikes, which had been planned previously, had disabled Iranian rocket launch systems. U.S. officials have declined to comment.

“They try hard, but have not carried out a successful attack,” Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, Iran’s minister for information and communications technology, said on Twitter.

“Media asked if the claimed cyber attacks against Iran are true,” he said. “Last year we neutralized 33 million attacks with the (national) firewall.”

Allies of the United States have been calling for steps to defuse the crisis, saying they fear a small mistake on either side could trigger war.

“We are very concerned. We don’t think either side wants a war, but we are very concerned that we could get into an accidental war and we are doing everything we can to ratchet things down,” British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo jetted to the Middle East to discuss Iran with the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two Gulf Arab allies that favor a hard line. Pompeo met King Salman as well as the king’s son, de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The U.S. special representative for Iran, Brian Hook, visited Oman and was headed to Europe to explain U.S. policy to allies. He told European reporters on a phone call ahead of his arrival that Trump was willing to sit down with Iran, but Iran must do a deal before sanctions could be lifted.

CONCESSIONS

U.S.-Iran relations began to deteriorate last year when the United States abandoned a 2015 agreement between Iran and world powers designed to curb Iran’s nuclear program in return for the lifting of sanctions.

They got sharply worse last month when Trump tightened sanctions, ordering all countries to stop buying Iranian oil.

Recent weeks saw a military dimension to the confrontation, with the United States blaming Iran for attacks on vessels at sea, which Iran denies. Iran shot down the drone, saying it was in its air space, which Washington disputes. Washington also blames Iran for attacks by its Yemeni allies on Saudi targets.

Washington argues that the 2015 nuclear agreement known as the JCPOA, negotiated under Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, did not go far enough, and that new sanctions are needed to force Iran back to the table to make more concessions.

Throughout the escalation, both sides have suggested they are willing to hold talks but the other side must move first. In the latest comment from Tehran, an adviser to President Hassan Rouhani repeated a longstanding demand that Washington lift sanctions in line with the deal.

But the adviser, Hesameddin Ashena, also tweeted a rare suggestion that Iran could be willing to discuss new concessions, if Washington were willing to put new incentives on the table that go beyond those in the deal.

“If they want something beyond the JCPOA, they should offer something beyond the JCPOA; with international guarantees.”

Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, Abbas Mousavi, was quoted by ISNA news agency as saying on Monday Tehran did not “want a rise of tensions and its consequences”.

U.S. allies in Europe and Asia view Trump’s decision to abandon the nuclear deal as a mistake that strengthens hardliners in Iran and weakens the pragmatic faction of Rouhani.

Trump has suggested that he backed off the military strike against Iran in part because he was not sure the country’s top leadership had intended to shoot down the drone. However, an Iranian commander said Tehran was prepared to do it again.

“Everyone saw the downing of the unmanned drone,” navy commander Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi was quoted on Sunday as saying by the Tasnim news agency. “I can assure you that this firm response can be repeated, and the enemy knows it.”

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London and Stephen Kalin in Jeddah; Additional reporting by Robin Emmott in Brussels; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Jon Boyle)

Trump says Iran ‘made a very big mistake’ by shooting down drone

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is seen near a "3 Khordad" system which is said to had been used to shoot down a U.S. military drone, according to news agency Fars, in this undated handout picture. Fars news/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE.

By Parisa Hafezi and Phil Stewart

DUBAI/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday said Iran made “a very big mistake” by shooting down a U.S. military drone that Tehran said was on a spy mission over its territory, in an incident that fanned fears of wider military conflict in the Middle East.

The United States, which called the event an “unprovoked attack” in international air space, is pursuing a campaign to isolate Iran to contain its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and limit its role in regional wars.

It was the latest in an escalating series of incidents in the Gulf region, a critical artery for global oil supplies, since mid-May including explosive strikes on six oil tankers as Tehran and Washington have edged toward confrontation.

“Iran made a very big mistake!” Trump said in a Twitter post.

It was unclear how the United States might respond and U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in Congress, said Washington had no appetite for war with Iran.

Iran has denied involvement in the tanker attacks, but global jitters about a new Middle East conflagration disrupting oil exports have triggered a jump in crude prices. They surged by more than $3 to above $63 a barrel on Thursday.

Saudi Arabia, Washington’s main gulf ally, said Iran had created a grave situation with its “aggressive behavior” and the kingdom was consulting other Gulf Arab states on next steps.

“When you interfere with international shipping it has an impact on the supply of energy, it has an impact on the price of oil which has an impact on the world economy. It essentially affects almost every person on the globe,” Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs, told reporters in London.

Tensions flared with Trump’s withdrawal last year from world powers’ 2015 nuclear accord with Iran and have worsened as Washington imposed fresh sanctions to throttle Tehran’s vital oil trade. Iran retaliated earlier this week with a threat to breach limits on its nuclear activities imposed by the deal.

U.S. MIDEAST FORCES

Upping the ante, Washington said on Monday it would deploy about 1,000 more troops, along with Patriot missiles and manned and unmanned surveillance aircraft, to the Middle East on top of a 1,500-troop increase announced after the May tanker attacks.

Iranian state media said the “spy” drone was brought down over the southern Iranian province of Hormozgan, which is on the Gulf, with a locally made “3 Khordad” missile.

A U.S. official said the drone, formally called an RQ-4A Global Hawk High-Altitude, Long, Endurance Unmanned Aircraft System, had been downed in international air space over the Strait of Hormuz, through which about a third of the world’s seaborne oil exits the Gulf..

Navy Captain Bill Urban, a spokesman for the U.S. military’s Central Command, said Iran’s account that the drone had been flying over Iranian territory was false.

“This was an unprovoked attack on a U.S. surveillance asset in international air space,” Urban said. The drone, he added, was downed over the Strait of Hormuz at approximately 2335 GMT – in the early morning hours of local time in the Gulf.

Separately, a U.S. official told Reuters on condition of anonymity the debris field from the drone was in international waters in the Strait and U.S. naval assets have been dispatched to the area.

Iran’s foreign ministry said the drone had violated Iranian air space and warned of the consequences of such “illegal and provocative” measures.

Independent confirmation of the drone’s location when it was brought down was not immediately available.

A Iranian Revolutionary Guards statement said the drone’s identification transponder had been switched off “in violation of aviation rules and was moving in full secrecy” when it was downed, Iranian state broadcaster IRIB reported.

IRANIAN “RED LINE”

“Our air space is our red line and Iran has always responded and will continue to respond strongly to any country that violates our air space,” Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, told Iran’s Tasnim news agency.

The RQ-4A’s manufacturer, Northrop Grumman, says on its website that it can fly for over 24 hours at a time at altitudes higher than 10 miles (16 km), with an operational range of 8,200 nautical miles.

The Trump administration sought on Wednesday to rally global support for its pressure on Iran by displaying limpet mine fragments it said came from an oil tanker damaged in the June 13 attacks, saying the ordnance closely resembled mines publicly displayed in Iranian military parades.

European diplomats have said more evidence is needed to pinpoint responsibility for the tanker strikes.

The U.S. sanctions net draped over Iran, scuttling its oil exports and barring it from the dollar-dominated global finance system, have hammered Iran’s economy, undoing the promise of trade rewards from the 2015 deal to curb its nuclear ambitions.

Trump has sent forces including aircraft carriers, B-52 bombers and troops to the Middle East over the past few weeks. Iran said last week it was responsible for the security of the Strait of Hormuz, calling on American forces to leave the Gulf.

Tehran has also said it will shortly suspend compliance with the nuclear deal’s curbs on its uranium enrichment, meant to block any pathway to nuclear weapons capability, and threatened to disrupt oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz.

But Trump – who sees the nuclear deal as flawed to Iran’s advantage and requiring renegotiation – and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have both said they have no interest in starting a war.

(Additional reporting by Asma Alsharif, Stephen Kalin in Riyadh and Doina Chiacu in Washinigton; Writing by Parisa Hafezi and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Alistair Bell)

Erdogan does not expect U.S. sanctions over Russian S-400 deal

FILE PHOTO - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends talks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Russian President Vladimir Putin, during their meeting in the Black sea resort of Sochi, Russia, 14 February 2019. Sergei Chirikov/Pool via REUTERS

By Jonathan Spicer and Humeyra Pamuk

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday he did not expect the United States to impose sanctions over Turkey’s planned purchase of a Russian missile defense system, but he would retaliate if it did.

Speaking at a rare news conference for foreign media in Istanbul, Erdogan repeated that the purchase of Russian S-400 systems was a done deal and said the United States should think carefully before imposing sanctions on a NATO member.

“I do not see any possibility of these sanctions happening,” Erdogan said. However, if they did, “we will have sanctions of our own”.

Washington has repeatedly threatened to impose sanctions unless Ankara backs down from the S-400 purchase. Erdogan said the delivery of the system would start in the first half of July.

His expectation of no sanctions appeared largely based on his personal relationship with President Donald Trump. “I say this very openly and sincerely, our relations with Trump are at a place that I can call really good … In the event of any issues, we immediately work the phones,” Erdogan said.

He said he would discuss the issue with Trump at the G20 summit in Japan at the end of June, and that the problem was largely with other U.S. officials. “When we have talks with those below Trump, we see that many cannot agree with our officials, and one example is the S-400,” he said.

Turkey and the United States have been at loggerheads over the issue for months. Washington says the S-400 is incompatible with NATO’s defense network and could compromise its F-35 fighter jets, an aircraft Turkey is helping build and planning to buy.

Buying military equipment from Russia leaves Turkey liable to U.S. retribution under a 2017 law known as the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA.

Even minor U.S. sanctions could prompt another sharp sell-off in the Turkish lira. A 30 percent slide in the currency drove the Middle East’s largest economy into recession last year. It has fallen another 10 percent this year and markets remain on edge.

Erdogan said Turkey wanted to buy Patriot missiles from the U.S. but that offer was in no way comparable to Russia’s.

He said Turkey would appeal to international courts and ask for its F-35 payments to be refunded if needed.

(Additional reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen and Canan Sevgili; Writing by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Daren Butler and John Stonestreet)