U.S.’ Blinken calls for global companies to reconsider financial support to Myanmar’s military

By Simon Lewis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday called on international companies to consider cutting ties to enterprises that support Myanmar’s military and he decried its crackdown on anti-coup protesters.

At least 512 civilians had been killed in nearly two months of protests against the coup, 141 of them on Saturday, the bloodiest day of the unrest, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners advocacy group.

Blinken told reporters the violence was “reprehensible” and followed a pattern of “increasingly disturbing and even horrifying violence” against demonstrators opposing military rule, including the killing of children as young as five.

The United States has condemned the Feb. 1 coup that ousted an elected government. Washington has imposed several rounds of sanctions, but Myanmar’s generals have refused to change course.

Blinken said other nations and companies worldwide should look at pulling “significant investments in enterprises that support the Burmese military.”

“They should be looking at those investments and reconsidering them as a means of denying the military the financial support it needs to sustain itself against the will of the people,” he said.

The United States last week placed Treasury sanctions on two military-owned conglomerates, which prevents U.S. companies and individuals from dealing with them.

But some companies, including firms from U.S. regional allies such as Japan and South Korea, still have business relationships with military-owned companies, according to activist groups.

Activists have also called on international energy companies like U.S.-based Chevron to withhold revenues from natural gas projects they operate in Myanmar from the junta-controlled government.

One of Myanmar’s main ethnic minority rebel groups warned of a growing threat of major conflict on Tuesday and called for international intervention against the military crackdown.

(Reporting by Simon Lewis; editing by Grant McCool)

Blinken warns entities involved in Nord Stream 2 pipeline to immediately quit

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. State Department is tracking efforts to complete Russia’s Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline and evaluating information on entities that appear to be involved, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Thursday.

“Any entity involved in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline risks U.S. sanctions and should immediately abandon work on the pipeline,” Blinken said in a statement, adding the Biden administration is committed to complying with 2019 and 2020 legislation with regards to the pipeline and sanctions.

Shortly after Blinken’s statement, Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican and an opponent of the pipeline, lifted a hold he had placed on two of President Joe Biden’s nominees, including William Burns for director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Nord Stream 2, led by Russia state energy company Gazprom with its Western partners, would double the capacity of an existing link to take Russian gas to Germany under the Baltic Sea. Biden believes the project is a “bad deal” for Ukraine and Central and Eastern European allies, Blinken said.

The pipeline would bypass Ukraine, likely depriving it of lucrative transit revenues and potentially undermine its efforts against Russian aggression.

Sanctions law that went into effect this year require the State Department to sanction companies that help Nord Stream 2 lay pipeline or provide insurance or certification of its construction. Nearly 20 companies, mostly insurance firms, recently quit the project after Washington warned them in recent months that they could be sanctioned.

Cruz said he would maintain a hold on Wendy Sherman, who Biden has nominated to be the No. 2 official at the State Department until the administration imposes full sanctions on ships and companies involved in the project. Sherman easily passed through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week and a hold would only likely delay a full Senate vote on her nomination.

(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis and Timothy Gardner; Editing by Chris Reese)

Iran reacts coolly to U.S. talk offer, demands lifting of sanctions

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran will “immediately reverse” actions in its nuclear program once U.S. sanctions are lifted, its foreign minister said on Friday, reacting coolly to Washington’s initial offer to revive talks with Tehran aimed at restoring the 2015 nuclear deal.

President Joe Biden’s administration said on Thursday it was ready to talk to Iran about both nations returning to the accord, which aimed to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons while lifting most international sanctions. Former President Donald Trump left the accord in 2018 and reimposed sanctions on Iran.

Tehran said Washington’s move was not enough to persuade Iran to fully respect the accord.

When sanctions are lifted, “we will then immediately reverse all remedial measures. Simple,” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Twitter.

Since Trump ditched the deal, Tehran has breached the accord by rebuilding stockpiles of low-enriched uranium, enriching it to higher levels of fissile purity and installing advanced centrifuges to speed up production.

Tehran and Washington have been at odds over who should make the first step to revive the accord. Iran says the United States must first lift Trump’s sanctions while Washington says Tehran must first return to compliance with the deal.

However, a senior Iranian official told Reuters that Tehran was considering Washington’s offer to talk about the revival of the deal.

“But first they should return to the deal. Then within the framework of the 2015 deal, a mechanism to basically synchronize steps can be discussed,” the official said. “We have never sought nuclear weapons and this is not part of our defense doctrine,” the Iranian official said. “Our message is very clear. Lift all the sanctions and give diplomacy a chance.”

The European Union is working on organizing an informal meeting with all participants of the Iran deal and the United States, which has already signaled willingness to join any gathering, a senior EU official said on Friday.

Adding to pressure for a resolution to the impasse, a law passed by the hardline parliament obliges Tehran on Feb. 23 to cancel the sweeping access given to U.N. inspectors under the deal, limiting their visits to declared nuclear sites only.

The United States and the European parties to the accord have urged Iran to refrain from taking the step, which will complicate Biden’s efforts to restore the pact.

POLITICAL INFIGHTING

“We have to implement the law. The other party must act quickly and lift these unjust and illegal sanctions if they want Tehran to honor the deal,” said the Iranian official.

The IAEA’s short-notice inspections, which can range anywhere beyond Iran’s declared nuclear sites, are mandated under the IAEA’s “Additional Protocol” that Iran agreed to honor under the deal.

While Iran’s demand for a lifting of all U.S. sanctions is unlikely to be met anytime soon, analysts said, Tehran faces a delicate choice about how to respond to Biden’s overture with an upcoming presidential election in June.

With growing discontent at home over economic hardship, the election turnout is seen as a referendum on the clerical establishment — a potential risk for Iran’s rulers. Hardliners, set to win the vote and tighten their grip, have been pushing to squeeze more concessions from Washington for reviving the deal.

Iran’s fragile economy, weakened by U.S. sanctions and coronavirus crisis, has left the ruling elite with few options.

“Hardliners are not against dealing with Washington. But their tactic is to stall any engagement to get more concessions until a hardline president is at the office,” said a senior government official.

Some Iranian hardliners said top authority Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s tough stance had forced Washington to cave in. On Wednesday he demanded “action, not words” from the United States if it wants to restore the deal.

“They have reversed some measures … It is a defeat for America … but we are waiting to see whether there will be action on lifting sanctions,” state media quoted Tabriz city’s Friday prayer leader Mohammadali Ale-Hashem as saying.

Biden has said that he will use the revival of the nuclear deal as a springboard to a broader agreement that might restrict Iran’s ballistic missile development and regional activities.

Tehran has ruled out negotiations on wider security issues such as Iran’s missile program.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by William Maclean and Frances Kerry)

U.S. lawmakers ask Blinken for briefing on Nord Stream 2 natgas pipeline

By Timothy Gardner

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Several U.S. Representatives on Wednesday raised pressure on the State Department to share plans on potential sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline Russia is racing to finish to take fuel to Europe.

“If completed, Nord Stream 2 would enable the Putin regime to further weaponize Russia’s energy resources to exert political pressure throughout Europe,” two Republicans including Michael McCaul, and two Democrats including Marcy Kaptur, wrote in a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

U.S. representatives and senators have said that the Biden administration has missed a deadline of Feb. 16 to issue Congress a report required by recently passed law on companies helping Russia’s state energy company Gazprom lay pipeline, insure vessels, and certify construction work.

Several companies, including Zurich Insurance Group have already left fearing sanctions and companies listed in report could drop out of the project, making completion difficult.

Nord Stream 2 is more than 90% complete but requires additional tricky work in deep waters of the Baltic Sea off Denmark. The pipeline would bypass Ukraine, through which Russia has sent gas to Europe for decades, depriving it of lucrative transit fees and potentially undermining its struggle against Russian aggression.

The representatives asked Blinken for a briefing with State Department officials to inform them of the status of the report and their assessment of possible sanctionable activity of vessels believed to be helping to finish the project.

President Joe Biden believes the $11 billion pipeline, which would double the existing capacity of the Nord Stream system to take gas undersea to Germany, is a “bad deal for Europe” according to his press secretary Jen Psaki.

State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters last week that “sanctions are only one” of many tools and that the department will work closely with allies and partners to reinforce European energy security and to safeguard against “predatory behavior”. The department did not immediately respond to a request about the requested briefing.

The representatives said the briefing should include details on “any proposals offered to the Biden administration on the future of the pipeline that aim to persuade the administration to forego or weaken the mandatory sanctions,” apparently referring to any talks between Washington and Germany for a deal on the project.

Gazprom insists the project will be completed in 2021.

(Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Marguerita Choy)

In response to Myanmar coup, Biden signs order for sanctions on generals, businesses

(Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden announced on Wednesday he had approved an executive order for new sanctions on those responsible for the military coup in Myanmar and he repeated demands for the generals to give up power and free civilian leaders.

Biden said the executive order would enable his administration “to immediately sanction the military leaders who directed the coup, their business interests as well as close family members.”

He said Washington would identify the first round of targets this week and was taking steps to prevent the generals in Myanmar, which is also known as Burma, having access to $1 billion in funds held in the United States.

“We’re also going to impose strong exports controls. We’re freezing U.S. assets that benefit the Burmese government, while maintaining our support for health care, civil society groups, and other areas that benefit the people of Burma directly,” Biden said at the White House.

“We’ll be ready to impose additional measures, and we’ll continue to work with our international partners to urge other nations to join us in these efforts.”

The Feb. 1 coup, which overthrew elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian-led government, occurred less than two weeks after Biden took office. It presented him with his first major international crisis and an early test of his dual pledges to re-center human rights in foreign policy and work more closely with allies.

Biden said Myanmar was of “deep and bipartisan concern” in the United States.

“I again call on the Burmese military to immediately release the democratic political leaders and activists,” he said. “The military must relinquish power it’s seized.”

U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price told a news briefing Washington was rolling out collective actions with partners on Myanmar and could impose substantial costs on the generals.

Protesters returned to the streets of Myanmar on Wednesday despite the shooting of a young woman the previous day, with some deploying humor to emphasize their peaceful opposition to the military takeover.

The protests have been the largest in Myanmar in more than a decade, reviving memories of almost half a century of direct army rule and spasms of bloody uprisings until the military began relinquishing some power in 2011.

The military justified its takeover on the grounds of fraud in a Nov. 8 election that Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party won by a landslide. The electoral commission dismissed the army’s complaints.

The Biden administration has been working to form an international response to the crisis, including by working with allies in Asia who have closer ties to Myanmar and its military.

Western countries have condemned the coup, but despite this, analysts say Myanmar’s military’s is unlikely to be as isolated as it was in the past, with China, India, Southeast Asian neighbors and Japan unlikely to cut ties given the country’s geo-strategic importance.

While Biden did not specify who would be hit with new sanctions, Washington is likely to target coup leader Min Aung Hlaing and other top generals who are already under U.S. sanctions imposed in 2019 over abuses against Rohingya Muslims and other minorities.

It could also blacklist the military’s two major conglomerates, Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited and Myanmar Economic Corp, holding companies with investments spanning sectors including banking, gems, copper, telecoms and clothing.

Japan’s foreign ministry said U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Japanese counterpart Toshimitsu Motegi agreed in a phone call to urge the Myanmar authorities to immediately stop violence against protesters.

There were no reports of violence in Myanmar on Wednesday, and in many places protests took on a festive air, with bare-chested body builders, women in ball gowns and wedding dresses, farmers in tractors and people with their pets.

Thousands joined demonstrations in the main city of Yangon, while in the capital, Naypyitaw, hundreds of government workers marched in support of a growing civil disobedience campaign.

The Biden administration has been working on its Myanmar policy with both fellow Democrats and Republicans in Congress.

U.S. National security adviser Jake Sullivan spoke on Wednesday with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who has a longstanding interest in the country and a close relationship with Suu Kyi, a McConnell aide said.

Suu Kyi, 75, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for campaigning for democracy and remains hugely popular at home despite damage to her international reputation over the plight of the Muslim Rohingya minority.

She has spent nearly 15 years under house arrest and now faces charges of illegally importing six walkie-talkies and her lawyer said he has not been allowed to see her.

(Reporting by Reuters staff; Writing by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Mary Milliken and Grant McCool)

Biden threatens U.S. sanctions in response to Myanmar coup

By David Brunnstrom, Matt Spetalnick and Jarrett Renshaw

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden on Monday threatened to reimpose sanctions on Myanmar following a coup by the country’s military leaders and called for a concerted international response to press them to relinquish power.

Biden condemned the military’s takeover from the civilian-led government on Monday and its detention of elected leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi as “a direct assault on the country’s transition to democracy and the rule of law.”

The Myanmar crisis marks a first major test of Biden’s pledge to collaborate more with allies on international challenges, especially on China’s rising influence, in contrast to former President Donald Trump’s often go-it-alone “America First” approach.

It also represented a rare policy alignment between Biden’s fellow Democrats and top Republicans as they joined in denouncing the coup and urging Myanmar’s military face consequences.

“The international community should come together in one voice to press the Burmese military to immediately relinquish the power they have seized, release the activists and officials they have detained,” Biden said in a statement.

“The United States removed sanctions on Burma over the past decade based on progress toward democracy. The reversal of that progress will necessitate an immediate review of our sanction laws and authorities, followed by appropriate action,” he said.

Biden also called on the military in Myanmar, which is also known as Burma, to lift all restrictions on telecommunications and to refrain from violence against civilians.

He said the United States was “taking note of those who stand with the people of Burma in this difficult hour.”

“We will work with our partners throughout the region and the world to support the restoration of democracy and the rule of law, as well as to hold accountable those responsible for overturning Burma’s democratic transition,” he said.

Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won a landslide 83% in a Nov. 8 election. The army said in taking over in the early hours of Monday that it had responded to what it called election fraud.

‘INTENSIVE’ CONSULTATIONS

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told a regular news briefing the United States has had “intensive” conversations with allies about Myanmar. She declined to say what other actions were under consideration aside from sanctions.

Asked whether Biden’s assertion that the United States was “taking note” of how other countries respond was a message to China, Psaki told reporters: “It’s a message to all countries in the region.”

The top Democrat on the Senate Foreign relations committee, Robert Menendez, said the United States and other countries “should impose strict economic sanctions, as well as other measures” against Myanmar’s army and the military leadership if they did not free the elected leaders and remove themselves from government.

Menendez also charged that the Myanmar army was guilty of “genocide” against minority Rohingya Muslims – a determination yet to be stated by the U.S. government – and of a sustained campaign of violence against other minorities.

U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who like members of the Biden administration has had close past ties with Suu Kyi, called the arrests “horrifying” and demanded a tough response.

“The Biden Administration must take a strong stand and our partners and all democracies around the world should follow suit in condemning this authoritarian assault on democracy,” he said.

McConnell added that Washington needed to “impose costs” on those behind the coup.

The events in Myanmar are a significant blow for the Biden administration and its effort to forge a robust Asia Pacific policy to stand up to China.

Many of Biden’s Asia policy team, including its head, Kurt Campbell, are veterans of the Obama administration, which at the end of former President Barack Obama’s term hailed its work to end decades of military rule in Myanmar as a major foreign policy achievement. Biden served as Obama’s vice president.

Obama started easing sanctions in 2011 after the military began loosening its grip, and he announced in 2016 the lifting many of the remaining sanctions. But in 2019, the Trump administration imposed targeted sanctions on four military commanders, including General Min Aung Hlaing, over human rights abuses against Rohingya Muslims and other minorities.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom, Jonathan Landay, Patricia Zengerle, Matt Spetalnick, Simon Lewis, Humeyra Pamuk; Writing by David Brunnstrom and Matt Spetalnick; editing by Grant McCool)

China imposes sanctions on 28 Trump-era officials including Pompeo

By Cate Cadell and Tony Munroe

BEIJING (Reuters) – China said on Wednesday it wanted to cooperate with President Joe Biden’s new U.S. administration, while announcing sanctions against “lying and cheating” outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and 27 other top officials under Donald Trump.

The move was a sign of China’s anger, especially at an accusation Pompeo made on his final full day in office that China had committed genocide against its Uighur Muslims, an assessment that Biden’s choice to succeed Pompeo, Anthony Blinken, said he shared.

In a striking repudiation of its relationship with Washington under Trump, the Chinese foreign ministry announced the sanctions in a statement that appeared on its website around the time that Biden was taking the presidential oath.

Pompeo and the others had “planned, promoted and executed a series of crazy moves, gravely interfered in China’s internal affairs, undermined China’s interests, offended the Chinese people, and seriously disrupted China-U.S. relations,” it said.

The other outgoing and former Trump officials sanctioned included trade chief Peter Navarro, National Security Advisers Robert O’Brien and John Bolton, Health Secretary Alex Azar, U.N. ambassador Kelly Craft and former top Trump aide Steve Bannon.

The 28 ex-officials and immediate family members would be banned from entering mainland China, Hong Kong or Macao, and companies and institutions associated with them restricted from doing business with China.

China has imposed sanctions on U.S. lawmakers in the past year, but targeting so many former and outgoing U.S. officials on inauguration day was an unusual expression of disdain.

Pompeo, who unleashed a barrage of measures against China in his final weeks in office, announced that on Tuesday that the Trump administration had determined that China had committed “genocide and crimes against humanity” against Uighur Muslims.

Blinken said on Tuesday he agreed with Pompeo’s genocide assessment.

“The forcing of men, women and children into concentration camps; trying to, in effect, re-educate them to be adherents to the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party, all of that speaks to an effort to commit genocide,” Blinken said.

China has repeatedly rejected accusations of abuse in its western Xinjiang region, where a United Nations panel has said at least 1 million Uighurs and other Muslims had been detained in camps.

Responding to the Xinjiang allegations, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a media briefing on Wednesday: “Pompeo has made so many lies in recent years, and this is just another bold-faced lie.”

“This U.S. politician is notorious for lying and cheating, is making himself a laughing stock and a clown,” she said.

Hua said China hoped “the new administration will work together with China in the spirit of mutual respect, properly handle differences and conduct more win-win cooperation in more sectors.”

“We hope the new U.S. administration can have their own reasonable and cool-minded judgment on Xinjiang issues, among other issues.”

(Reporting by Cate Cadell, Tony Munroe, Ryan Woo and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

U.S. announces new sanctions on six linked to Hong Kong mass arrests

By Humeyra Pamuk and David Brunnstrom

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States announced sanctions on Friday against six Hong Kong or Chinese officials it blamed for implementing a new security law in Hong Kong, following the mass arrests of pro-democracy activists this month.

Hong Kong police arrested 53 people on Jan. 5 in dawn raids on democracy activists in the biggest crackdown since China last year imposed a security law which opponents say is aimed at quashing dissent in the former British colony.

The six people targeted for new sanctions include Frederic Choi, director of the national security division of the Hong Kong police, and Sun Qingye, a deputy to Zheng Yanxiong, who was appointed in July to head a new national security office in Hong Kong. Also named were pro-Beijing legislator Tam Yiu-chung and You Quan of China’s United Front Work Department.

U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo warned last week of fresh sanctions in response to the arrests of pro-democracy activists. That warning came a day after supporters of President Donald Trump stormed Congress in a bid to overturn his November election defeat, prompting China’s state media to accuse U.S. politicians of “double standards.”

It was the latest in a series of last minute steps taken by Pompeo on foreign policy, several targeting China in what analysts see as a bid driven by Pompeo to lock in a tough approach to Beijing.

Trump has pursued hardline policies toward China on issues ranging from trade to espionage and the coronavirus.

His administration has already imposed sanctions on Chinese officials for their actions involving the pro-democracy movement and other alleged rights abuses, and last July declared an end to the territory’s privileged economic status under U.S. law.

The Trump administration took another swipe at China and its biggest companies on Thursday, imposing sanctions on officials and companies for alleged misdeeds in the South China Sea and imposing an investment ban on nine more firms.

Last Saturday, Pompeo said he was lifting restrictions on contacts between U.S. officials and counterparts in Taiwan, a move that greatly angered Beijing, which considers the island a renegade province.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk, Daphne Psaledakis and David Brunnstrom; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. hits Iran with fresh sanctions

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States on Tuesday blacklisted a Chinese company that makes elements for steel production, 12 Iranian steel and metals makers and three foreign-based sales agents of a major Iranian metals and mining holding company, seeking to deprive Iran of revenues.

In a statement, the U.S. Treasury Department named the China-based company as Kaifeng Pingmei New Carbon Materials Technology Co Ltd. (KFCC), saying it specialized in the manufacture of carbon materials and provided thousands of metric tonnes of materials to Iranian steel companies between December 2019 and June 2020.

Among the 12 Iranian companies blacklisted are the Pasargad Steel Complex and the Gilan Steel Complex Co, both of which were designated under Executive Order 13871 for operating in the Iranian steel sector.

The others are: Iran-based Middle East Mines and Mineral Industries Development Holding Co (MIDHCO), Khazar Steel Co, Vian Steel Complex, South Rouhina Steel Complex, Yazd Industrial Constructional Steel Rolling Mill, West Alborz Steel Complex, Esfarayen Industrial Complex, Bonab Steel Industry Complex, Sirjan Iranian Steel and Zarand Iranian Steel Co.

The Treasury said it was also designating MIDHCO’s Germany-based subsidiary GMI Projects Hamburg GmbH, its China-based World Mining Industry Co Ltd and U.K.-based GMI Projects Ltd for being owned or controlled by MIDHCO.

“The Trump Administration remains committed to denying revenue flowing to the Iranian regime as it continues to sponsor terrorist groups, support oppressive regimes, and seek weapons of mass destruction,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in the statement.

(Reporting by Arshad Mohammed, Daphne Psaledakis and Doina Chiacu; writiing by Arshad Mohammed; editing by Doina Chiacu and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. imposes fresh sanctions on Syria in push for Assad to end war

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States on Tuesday slapped fresh sanctions on Syria, targeting its central bank and blacklisting several people and entities in a continued effort to cut off funds for President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

The latest action, building on sanctions imposed on Syria earlier this year, marked another round in a U.S. campaign to push Assad’s government back into U.N.-led negotiations to end the country’s nearly decade-long war.

In a statement, the U.S. Treasury Department said the new sanctions add two individuals, nine business entities and the Central Bank of Syria to Washington’s Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List.

The U.S. State Department also designated Asma al-Assad, the British-born wife of the Syrian president, accusing her of impeding efforts for a political resolution to the war, and several members of her family, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement. Asma al-Assad was previously hit with sanctions in June.

Millions of people have fled Syria and millions more have been internally displaced since a crackdown by Assad on protesters in 2011 led to civil war with Iran and Russia backing the government and the United States supporting the opposition.

Syria has been under U.S. and European Union sanctions that have frozen foreign-held assets of the state and hundreds of companies and individuals. Washington already bans exports to Syria and investment there by Americans, as well as transactions involving oil and hydrocarbon products.

(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis and Lisa Lambert Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Mark Heinrich)