U.S. slaps sanctions on Mexican firms, individuals linked to Venezuelan oil trade

By Daphne Psaledakis and Marianna Parraga

WASHINGTON/MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – The United States on Thursday blacklisted Mexico’s Libre Abordo and a related company, accusing them of helping Caracas evade U.S. sanctions in the first formal action by the U.S. Treasury Department against Mexican firms involved in trading Venezuelan oil.

The Treasury said in a statement it imposed sanctions on three individuals, eight entities and two vessels for activities related to a network attempting to skirt U.S. sanctions on Venezuela aimed at ousting President Nicolas Maduro.

Mexico’s peso slumped 2% after the U.S. action.

Among those blacklisted were Mexico-based Libre Abordo and related Schlager Business Group, as well as their co-owners, Olga Maria Zepeda and Veronica Esparza.

The Treasury also targeted Mexican Joaquin Leal Jimenez, accusing him of having worked with Alex Saab, recently arrested in Cape Verde, Libre Abordo and Schlager for brokering the resale of millions of barrels of Venezuelan crude.

“Leal is the critical conduit between Libre Abordo, Schlager Business Group, and their owners, and PDVSA and Saab. Leal has been coordinating the purchase and sale of Venezuelan-origin crude oil from PDVSA,” Treasury said.

Leal did not reply to a request for comment.

A Maduro ally who has previously helped the government buy food, Saab was sanctioned in 2019 and charged with money laundering and conspiracy in a U.S. court in relation to a food program managed by Maduro’s administration. The government has denied any wrongdoing in connection with the program.

Libre Abordo said its lawyers will evaluate the Treasury’s decision, which it said wrongly linked the firm to unrelated entities.

“Our exchange of humanitarian aid with Venezuela should not be subject of sanctions,” Libre Abordo told Reuters in a statement.

The sanctions freeze any U.S. assets of the individuals and entities and generally prohibit Americans from dealing with them.

Libre Abordo and Schlager began receiving Venezuelan oil for resale in Asian markets late last year after signing two contracts with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government in mid-2019.

The agreement was framed as an oil-for-food pact exempted from U.S. sanctions as the Mexican firms intended to supply Venezuela with 210,000 tons of corn.

Through May, Libre Abordo and Schlager received some 30 million barrels of Venezuelan oil, according to PDVSA’s documents. Even though they supplied about 500 water trucks in exchange, food was never delivered, as very low oil prices affected a schedule originally planned, Libre Abordo said.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that the oil-for-food “enterprise skimmed millions from funds that were claimed to have been for humanitarian aid, yet failed to deliver the promised food to the Venezuelan people.”

Reuters reported last month that the FBI was probing several Mexican and European companies allegedly involved in trading Venezuelan oil, gathering information for a Treasury inquiry.

“They want us to be unable to export oil so the Venezuelan people are left without food, medicine or gasoline,” Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said on Thursday. “Your actions and sanctions are criminal,” he told Pompeo over Twitter.

Washington in January 2019 recognized Venezuelan politician Juan Guaido as the OPEC nation’s rightful leader and has ratcheted up sanctions and diplomatic pressure in the aftermath of Maduro’s 2018 re-election that was widely described as fraudulent.

Maduro remains in power, backed by Venezuela’s military as well as Russia, China and Cuba.

“The United States will continue to relentlessly pursue sanctions evaders,” Treasury Deputy Secretary Justin Muzinich said in the statement.

Washington also targeted on Thursday Marshall Islands-based Delos Voyager Shipping Ltd. and Greece-based Romina Maritime Co Inc. for operating in the Venezuelan oil sector, giving them until July 21 to wind down activities.

The other firms blacklisted are Alel Technologies LLC, Cosmo Resources Pte. Ltd, Luzy Technologies LLC; and Washington Trading Ltd.

The Treasury delisted Marshall Islands-based firm Afranav Maritime Ltd and Greece-based Seacomber Ltd, and two vessels they own, after the companies promised to stop trade with Venezuela while Maduro is in power.

(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis in Washington and Marianna Parraga in Mexico City; Additional reporting by Ana Isabel Martinez in Mexico City and Eric Beech in Washington; Editing by Tim Ahmann, Jonathan Oatis and Daniel Wallis)

‘From bad to worse’ – Dashed hopes may deter many Iranians from polls

By Babak Dehghanpisheh

DUBAI (Reuters) – Confrontation with America, economic hardship and an airline tragedy have battered Iranians’ confidence in their leaders, posing a potential problem for the authorities in a parliamentary election this week.

As the Feb. 21 vote nears, Iranians are in a gloomy mood, exhausted by a succession of crises that have helped to shred the hopes for a better life they harbored only four years ago.

That does not bode well for leaders seeking a big turnout at the ballot box: In their view, crowded polling stations would signal to arch-foe Washington that Iran is unbowed by sanctions and the killing of a prominent general in a U.S. strike.

Allies of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have ensured hardliners dominate the field — meaning that, whatever the turnout, security hawks seeking a more confrontational approach with Washington may tighten their control of the legislature.

But a meager showing would still rattle Iran’s leaders and embolden critics both in the country and outside who argue the Islamic Republic needs to change domestic and foreign policy.

“I’m a person who has voted before. My hope was that things would get a little better when I voted in the past. Now, all the red lines have been crossed,” said a doctor in Tehran whose clinic is struggling to source specialized medicine.

“This time, I have no hope and I will definitely not vote,” she said by phone, asking not to be identified discussing political matters.

Four years ago, things looked very different. Rouhani and his allies won big gains in parliamentary elections, and many hoped a nuclear deal agreed with world powers in 2015 would pull Iran out of political isolation and boost the economy.

“WE HAVEN’T SEEN ANY PROGRESS”

Those aspirations crumbled after President Donald Trump quit the pact in 2018 and reimposed sanctions in an effort to put stricter limits on Iran’s nuclear work, curb its ballistic missile program and end its involvement in regional proxy wars.

“The main root of everything is the economy,” Ali, a mobile phone shop employee in the central city of Isfahan, said by telephone, asking not to reveal his surname.

“If an individual doesn’t have the money to take home bread to his wife and family then he’ll stop praying and even lose his beliefs,” said Ali, who works more hours since his boss kept the store open in traditional afternoon resting periods in the hope customers could wander in. Ali does not plan to vote next week.

“I voted for several years and it didn’t make any difference. We haven’t seen any progress to say we want this or that candidate to come forward,” he said.

The authorities have been under pressure since last year when protests over a fuel price hike were met with the bloodiest crackdown since the 1979 Islamic revolution, killing hundreds.

A U.S. drone strike that felled top commander Qassem Soleimani in January in Iraq rallied Iranians around a common cause. But the show of support was quickly replaced by angry protests over efforts to cover up the accidental shooting down of a Ukrainian airliner that killed all 176 aboard.

The elite Revolutionary Guards apologized for the calamity, but that did not appease thousands protesting in several cities.

“This year, things are going from bad to worse,” said a Tehran resident and homemaker, who does not plan to vote and also asked not to be named.

“After the plane crash, the government has lost a lot of their supporters,” said the resident, who added that the establishment needed the election to show the world “how many supporters they have” after the string of crises.

Even before the latest troubles, sanctions that cut Iran’s crude oil exports by more than 80 percent were placing a painful squeeze on living standards.

The rial has slumped, trading on the free market at about 140,000 against the dollar against its official rate of 42,000, according to foreign exchange website Bonbast.com

VOTING FOR “HARD REVENGE”

The currency plunge has disrupted Iran’s foreign trade and boosted inflation, which the IMF expects at 31% this year.

In the eastern city of Birjand, Hamed said he has no time for elections as he frets about his business filming and photographing weddings, with only one in 10 customers asking for albums after the cost of photo paper rose six-fold since 2018.

“We’re focused on prices and having to call customers and asking them to pay,” Hamed told Reuters by phone, also declining to give his surname due to sensitivities. “We have nothing to do with politicians and politics.”

Analysts expect a lower turnout than the 62% in the 2016 parliamentary elections, with smaller, more conservative cities where families pressure kin to vote seeing a larger showing.

But Khamenei, Iran’s highest authority, has tried to drum up nationalistic sentiment to secure a strong turnout.

“It’s possible that someone doesn’t like me but if they like Iran they must come to the ballot box,” he said in a speech.

Supporters echoed the call on social media.

“A better election can also be another #hard_revenge,” a Twitter user named Teiaaraa posted two weeks ago, referring to a phrase used by state media for the Iranian strikes on Iraq bases that left over 100 U.S. soldiers with traumatic brain injuries.

(Reporting By Babak Dehghanpisheh; additional reporting by Davide Barbuscia; Editing by Ghaida Ghantous, William Maclean)

North Korea’s Kim to unveil ‘new path’ in New Year speech after U.S. misses deadline

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is set to make a closely watched New Year address on Wednesday which is likely to offer a glimpse of a “new path” he has vowed to take if the United States fails to meet his deadline to soften its stance over denuclearization.

The New Year address is expected to touch upon a wide range of issues from foreign affairs and military development to the economy and education.

In his 2019 speech, Kim said he might have to change course if Washington sticks to its pressure campaign and demands unilateral action, while stressing a “self-reliant” economy, a drive he has launched amid tightening sanctions.

The United States was on track to ignore a year-end deadline set by Kim, which Washington has downplayed as artificial, to show more flexibility to reopen talks aimed at dismantling North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

The upcoming speech is expected to be the culmination of an ongoing meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party’s 7th Central Committee, a key policy-making body, which Kim convened on Saturday. It was still under way on Tuesday, state media said.

Discussions at the gathering remain largely unknown, but official media KCNA said on Tuesday that Kim spent seven hours during a Monday session discussing state, economic and military building. On Sunday, he called for “positive and offensive measures” to ensure the country’s security.

“The Central Committee plenary meeting is meant to legitimize the process behind the policy decisions Kim Jong-un will announce in his New Year speech,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

“This meeting is to provide political justification for the economic and security policies Pyongyang will pursue in 2020.”

North Korea has provided few hints for what the “new path” may involve, but U.S. military commanders said Pyongyang next move could include the testing of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which it has halted since 2017, alongside nuclear bomb tests.

U.S. national security adviser Robert O’Brien warned Washington would be “extraordinarily disappointed” if North Korea tests a long-range or nuclear missile, while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he hoped it would choose peace over confrontation.

“We still maintain our view that we can find a path forward to convince the leadership in North Korea that their best course of action is to create a better opportunity for their people by getting rid of their nuclear weapons. That’s our mission set,” Pompeo told Fox News on Monday.

The U.S. Air Force flew an RC-135 surveillance plane over South Korea on Monday and Tuesday, according to military flight tracker Aircraft Spots.

Despite mounting speculation over a potential military provocation, any restart of an ICBM test would risk a personal relationship with Trump, which Pyongyang has repeatedly touted while denouncing Pompeo and other aides, analysts say.

Cho Tae-yong, a former South Korean deputy national security advisor, said Kim had few options that can leave the Trump ties intact.

“In any case, North Korea would add a lot of caveats before and after testing to make sure they’re not intent on destroying the negotiating table and it was the Americans who betrayed them,” Cho told Reuters.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Michael Perry)

‘Before it is too late’: Diplomats race to defuse tensions ahead of North Korea’s deadline

By Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – A last minute flurry of diplomacy aimed at engaging with North Korea ahead of its declared year-end deadline for talks has been met with stony silence from Pyongyang so far, with the looming crisis expected to top the agenda at summits in China next week.

The U.S. special envoy for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, was due to leave Beijing on Friday after meeting with Chinese officials. Earlier in the week, Biegun also made stops in Seoul and Tokyo for discussions with counterparts.

It is unclear if Biegun had any behind-the-scenes contact with North Korean officials, but his overtures and calls for new talks were not publicly answered by Pyongyang.

Biegun’s trip came as China and Russia teamed up this week to propose a resolution that would ease some United Nations Security Council sanctions on North Korea as a way to jumpstart talks.

Next week, Chinese, South Korean and Japanese leaders are due to meet in China, with North Korea likely to top the agenda.

“It’s kind of creepy that there haven’t been any statements from high level (North Korea) Foreign Ministry officials this week…,” Jenny Town, managing editor at the North Korea monitoring website 38 North, said on Twitter. “The silence, even after Biegun’s speech in Seoul, makes me concerned.”

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has given the United States until the end of the year to propose new concessions in talks over North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and reducing tensions between the long-time adversaries.

North Korea has said it is up to the United States to decide what “Christmas gift” it will receive this year, without specifying what Kim’s decision may be.

The prospect that 2020 may see a return to heightened tensions and major missile or weapons tests by North Korea has led politicians, diplomats, and analysts around the world to debate how to salvage diplomacy after U.S. President Donald Trump’s unprecedented summits with Kim over the past two years failed to make a breakthrough.

On Wednesday, four leading Democrats in the U.S. Senate wrote a letter to Trump arguing that U.S. efforts to establish peace on the peninsula and denuclearize North Korea “appear to be stalled and on the brink of failure”.

“We reiterate our hope that you will execute a serious diplomatic plan before it is too late,” the letter said.

‘THE BEST PLAN’

The Senate Democrats’ letter called for the administration to seek an interim agreement to freeze and roll back some of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes in conjunction with reduced pressure from sanctions.

“While such an agreement would of course only be a first step in a longer process, it would nonetheless be an important effort to create the sort of real and durable diplomatic process that is necessary,” they wrote.

China and Russia on Monday introduced a joint proposal that calls on the U.N. Security Council to lift some sanctions on exports and foreign workers, with Chinese officials calling it the “the best plan in the current situation to resolve the stalemate”.

The United States has said it is opposed to any sanctions relief at the moment, but has also said it is willing to be flexible in discussions.

Meanwhile, analysts at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank that has often advocated for a hard line against countries such as North Korea and Iran, called for the Trump administration to turn to implement a “maximum pressure 2.0” campaign.

The United States should increase sanctions, target North Korea with offensive cyber operations, and carry out an “aggressive” information campaign against the country, the foundation wrote in a report earlier in December.

A study commissioned by peace activists reported last month that sanctions were disproportionately affecting vulnerable populations in North Korea.

The report for Korea Peace Now! called for lifting all sanctions that may be violating international law or undermining human rights, and to “urgently” try to mitigate the impact on humanitarian efforts.

MILITARY TENSIONS

Recent weeks have seen some U.S. and North Korean officials discussing possible military actions once again.

Earlier this month, Trump angered North Korean officials by suggesting the United States could use military force “if we have to.”

Those remarks led North Korea’s army chief to warn that North Korea would take “prompt corresponding actions at any level.”

North Korea launched several dozen short-range missiles in 2019, and the commander of U.S. air forces in the Pacific said this week that he suspects “some kind of long-range missile” could be North Korea’s “Christmas gift.”

Speaking to reporters in Washington on Tuesday, Gen. Charles Brown said the U.S. military could “dust off pretty quickly and be ready to use” options it had developed during the height of tensions in 2017.

“If the diplomatic efforts kind of fall apart, we’ve got to be ready…we’re already thinking ahead,” he said.

(Editing by Jacqueline Wong)

U.S. senators want Turkey sanctioned over Russia missile system: letter

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Republican U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham and Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen called on the Trump administration on Monday to impose sanctions on Turkey over its purchase of a Russian missile defense system, saying the failure to do so sends a “terrible signal” to other countries.

“The time for patience has long expired. It is time you applied the law,” Van Hollen and Graham said in a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seen by Reuters. “Failure to do so is sending a terrible signal to other countries that they can flout U.S. laws without consequence,” they said.

Ankara and Washington have been at loggerheads over NATO ally Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 system, which Washington says is not compatible with NATO defenses and poses a threat to its F-35 stealth fighter jets, which Lockheed Martin Corp is developing.

Infuriating many members of Congress, Turkey shrugged off the threat of U.S. sanctions and began receiving its first S-400 deliveries in July. In response, Washington removed Turkey from the F-35 program.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has held off on imposing sanctions despite Trump signing a sweeping sanctions law, known as CAATSA, in 2017 mandating them for countries that do business with Russia’s military.

U.S. lawmakers’ anger toward Turkey deepened after Ankara crossed into Syria for an offensive against Kurdish militias that had helped U.S. forces combat Islamic State militants.

Normally an ardent defender of fellow-Republican Trump, Graham and some others in his party have been harshly critical of the president’s decision to withdraw troops from northeastern Syria, paving the way for the Turkish move against Kurdish fighters.

Van Hollen and Graham have been among the most vocal senators calling for Washington to push back against Turkey.

Trump hosted his Turkish counterpart, Tayyip Erdogan, at the White House for a meeting last month that Trump described as “wonderful.”

The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter. Pompeo said on Nov. 26 that Turkey carrying out tests on the Russian defense system was “concerning,” and that talks to resolve the issue were still under way.

The same day, the head of Russia’s state arms exporter, Rosoboronexport, was cited as saying that Moscow hoped to seal a deal to supply Turkey with more S-400 missile systems in the first half of 2020.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

China suspends U.S. military visits to Hong Kong, sanctions U.S.-based NGOs

BEIJING (Reuters) – China said on Monday U.S. military ships and aircraft won’t be allowed to visit Hong Kong, and also announced sanctions against several U.S. non-government organizations for encouraging protesters to “engage in extremist, violent and criminal acts.”

The measures were announced by China’s Foreign Ministry in response to U.S. legislation passed last week supporting anti-government protesters. It said it had suspended taking requests for U.S. military visits indefinitely, and warned of further action to come.

“We urge the U.S. to correct the mistakes and stop interfering in our internal affairs. China will take further steps if necessary to uphold Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity and China’s sovereignty,” said ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a daily news briefing in Beijing.

China last week promised it would issue “firm counter measures” after U.S. President Donald Trump signed into law the “Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act,” which supports anti-government protesters in Hong Kong and threatens China with potential sanctions.

There are fears that the row over Hong Kong could impact efforts by Beijing and Washington to reach preliminary deal that could de-escalate a prolonged trade war between the two countries.

The U.S.-headquartered NGOs targeted by Beijing include the National Endowment for Democracy, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, the International Republican Institute, Human Rights Watch, and Freedom House.

“They shoulder some responsibility for the chaos in Hong Kong and they should be sanctioned and pay the price,” said Hua.

In more normal times, several U.S. naval ships visit Hong Kong annually, a rest-and-recreation tradition that dates back to the pre-1997 colonial era which Beijing allowed to continue after the handover from British to Chinese rule.

Visits have at times been refused amid broader tensions and two U.S. ships were denied access in August.

The USS Blue Ridge, the command ship of the Japanese-based Seventh Fleet, stopped in Hong Kong in April – the last ship to visit before mass protests broke out in June.

Foreign NGOs are already heavily restricted in China, and have previously received sharp rebukes for reporting on rights issues in the country including the mass detention of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.

(Reporting by Cate Cadell and Beijing Monitoring Desk; Editing by Tom Hogue & Simon Cameron-Moore)

U.S.-China trade deal close, White House says, after negotiators speak by phone

By Andrea Shalal, Doina Chiacu and Kevin Yao

WASHINGTON/BEIJING (Reuters) – The United States and China are close to agreement on the first phase of a trade deal, White House adviser Kellyanne Conway said on Tuesday, after top negotiators from the two countries spoke by telephone and agreed to keep working on remaining issues.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin spoke with Chinese Vice Premier Liu on Tuesday morning, China’s Commerce Ministry said, as the world’s two largest economies try to hammer out a “phase one” deal in a 16-month trade war that is slowing global growth.

They discussed core issues related to the phase one deal, the ministry said.

Completion of a phase one deal had been expected in November, but trade experts and people close to the White House said last week it could slide into the new year, as Beijing presses for more extensive tariff rollbacks and Washington counters with its own demands.

Tuesday’s news lifted markets, with Wall Street’s three major indexes adding slightly to the previous days’ records. Reaching a trade agreement with China is one of U.S. President Donald Trump’s top priorities.

Conway told Fox News the United States and China were nearing agreement on the preliminary deal.

“We’re getting really close and that first phase is significant,” she said, adding that Trump wanted to “do this in phases, in interim pieces because it’s such a large, historic trade deal.”

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, told reporters on Tuesday, an initial trade deal with China could be reached before the end of the year.

He said China had invited Lighthizer and Mnuchnin to visit Beijing for in-person talks and they were willing to go if they saw “a real chance of getting a final agreement.”

The U.S. trade representative and the Treasury did not respond to requests for comment. A source familiar with the trade talks said the U.S. officials could go to Beijing after the Thanksgiving holiday on Thursday.

In October, Trump said he expected to quickly dive into a second phase of talks once “phase one” had been completed, focusing on U.S. complaints that China effectively steals U.S. intellectual property by forcing U.S. firms to transfer their technology to Chinese rivals.

U.S. and Chinese officials, lawmakers and trade experts warn such follow-on negotiations may prove difficult given the November 2020 U.S. presidential election, the difficulties in getting the first-stage done, and the White House’s reluctance to work with other countries to pressure Beijing.

“We continue to negotiate,” Conway said. “But those forced tech transfers, the theft of intellectual property, the trade imbalance of a half a trillion a year with the world’s second largest economy, China – this makes no sense to people.

“But the president wants a deal. But President Trump always waits for the best deal,” she said.

Tuesday’s call took place amid heightened tensions on various fronts between Beijing and Washington, with China saying on Tuesday that it had summoned U.S. Ambassador Terry Branstad on Monday to protest the passage in the U.S. Congress of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act.

China’s foreign ministry said the legislation amounted to interference in a Chinese internal matter.

Commerce Minister Zhong Shan, central bank governor Yi Gang and vice head of state planner Ning Jizhe also participated in the phone call.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Andrea Shalal; Editing by Catherine Evans and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. House passes Hong Kong rights bills, Trump expected to sign

By Patricia Zengerle and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday passed two bills to back protesters in Hong Kong and send a warning to China about human rights, with President Donald Trump expected to sign them into law, despite delicate trade talks with Beijing.

The House sent the bills to the White House after voting 417 to 1 for the “Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act,” which the Senate passed unanimously on Tuesday. Strong support had been expected after the House passed a similar bill last month.

The measure, which has angered Beijing, would require the State Department to certify at least once a year that Hong Kong retains enough autonomy to qualify for the special U.S. trading consideration that helped it become a world financial center.

It also would provide for sanctions against officials responsible for human rights violations in the Chinese-ruled city.

Demonstrators have protested for more than five months in the streets of Hong Kong, amid increasing violence and fears that Beijing will ratchet up its response to stop the civil disobedience.

The protesters are angry at what they see as Chinese meddling in the freedoms promised to Hong Kong when Britain handed it back to China in 1997.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio was a main sponsor of the Senate-passed bill, which was co-sponsored by Republican Senator Jim Risch and Democratic Senators Bob Menendez and Ben Cardin.

The House passed, by 417 to zero, a second bill, which the Senate also approved unanimously on Tuesday, to ban the export of certain crowd-control munitions to Hong Kong police forces. That measure bans the export of items such as tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and stun guns.

President Trump has 10 days, excluding Sundays, to sign a bill passed by Congress, unless he opts to use his veto.

A person familiar with the matter said the president intended to sign the bills into law, not veto them.

Vetoes would have been difficult to sustain, since the measures passed both the Republican-controlled Senate and Democratic-controlled House with almost no objections.

A two-thirds majority would be required in both the Senate and House to override a veto.

The Chinese embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

In Beijing on Wednesday, China condemned the legislation’s passage, and vowed strong countermeasures to safeguard its sovereignty and security.

China’s foreign ministry said this month that China had lodged “stern representations” with the United States about the legislation and urged that it not be passed into law, saying it would not only harm Chinese interests and China-U.S. relations, but the United States’ own interests too.

It said China would “inevitably take vigorous measures to firmly respond, to staunchly safeguard our sovereignty, security and development interests.”

Trump prompted questions about his commitment to protecting freedoms in Hong Kong when he referred in August to its mass street protests as “riots” that were a matter for China to deal with.

Trump has since called on China to handle the issue humanely, while warning that if anything bad happened in Hong Kong, it could be bad for talks to end a trade war between the world’s two largest economies.

On Thursday, the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s main newspaper, the People’s Daily, urged the United States to “rein in the horse at the edge of the precipice” and stop interfering in Hong Kong matters and China’s internal affairs.

“If the U.S. side obstinately clings to its course, the Chinese side will inevitably adopt forceful measures to take resolute revenge, and all consequences will be borne by the United States,” it said in a front-page editorial.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Patricia Zengerle, additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Clarence Fernandez)

Iran launches nuclear enrichment at underground Fordow plant, IAEA confirms

Iran launches nuclear enrichment at underground Fordow plant, IAEA confirms
VIENNA (Reuters) – Iran has begun enriching uranium at its underground Fordow site in the latest breach of its deal with major powers, the U.N. nuclear watchdog confirmed on Monday, adding that Tehran’s enriched uranium stock has continued to grow.

Iran is contravening the deal’s limits on its nuclear activities step by step in response to Washington’s withdrawal from the accord last year and its renewed sanctions on Tehran. Tehran says it can quickly undo those breaches if Washington lifts its sanctions.

In a quarterly report, the International Atomic Energy Agency policing the deal confirmed Iran’s announcement last week that it had begun enriching uranium at its Fordow site buried inside a mountain, something prohibited by the deal. “Since 9 November…, Iran has been conducting uranium enrichment at the plant,” said the confidential IAEA report, obtained by Reuters.

Iran’s stock of enriched uranium has increased, to 372.3 kg, well above the deal’s 202.8 kg cap. The maximum fissile purity to which Iran has enriched uranium so far, however, remains 4.5 %, above the deal’s 3.67% cap but still well below the 20% Iran has achieved before and the 90% required for atomic bomb fuel.

Iran has continued to enrich with centrifuge machines other than its most basic model, the IR-1, which is not allowed under the deal, the IAEA report added. It has enriched with more advanced centrifuges and even installed small numbers of centrifuges not mentioned in the deal, the report showed.

Iran said last week it was working on a advanced prototype of centrifuge that could enrich 50 times as fast as the IR-1, deemed by experts as antiquated and prone to breakdown.

(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Iran further distances itself from 2015 deal by fueling Fordow centrifuges

Iran further distances itself from 2015 deal by fueling Fordow centrifuges
GENEVA (Reuters) – Iran will start injecting uranium gas into centrifuges at its underground Fordow enrichment facility, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Tuesday, a highly symbolic breach that will complicate European efforts to salvage Tehran’s nuclear deal.

Under the 2015 agreement between Iran and world powers, Iran agreed to turn Fordow into a “nuclear, physics and technology center” where 1,044 centrifuges are used for purposes other than enrichment, such as producing stable isotopes, which have a variety of civil uses.

Iran has gradually scaled back its commitments to the deal, under which it curbed its nuclear program in exchange for the removal of most international sanctions, after the United States reneged on the agreement and reimposed sanctions.

The pact allows Iran only to spin the centrifuges at Fordow, located inside a mountain near the Shi’ite holy city of Qom, without injecting gas. Uranium gas injection could allow production of enriched uranium, banned at the facility under the pact.

“Starting from Wednesday, gas will be injected into centrifuges at Fordow as part of part of our fourth step to reduce our nuclear commitments to the deal,” Rouhani said in a televised speech.

He did not specify what kind of gas would be injected into centrifuges at Fordow.

But Kazem Gharibabadi, Iran’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said Iran had informed the agency over “the start of injecting UF6 (uranium hexafluoride) into centrifuges at Fordow on Wednesday”.

The deal bans nuclear material from Fordow and by injecting UF6 into centrifuges, the facility will become an active nuclear site rather than a research plant as permitted under the pact.

“The IAEA was requested to send its inspectors to monitor the process,” Gharibabadi said, quoted by state television. The IAEA monitors Tehran’s compliance with the deal.

The measure will further complicate the chances of saving the accord, which European powers have called on Iran to respect.

“The announcement by Iran on November 5 to increase its enrichment capacity goes against the Vienna agreement, which strictly limits activities in this area,” French foreign ministry spokeswoman Agnes von der Muhll said.

Iran said on Monday it had accelerated enrichment by doubling the number of advanced IR-6 centrifuges in operation, adding that it was working on “a prototype called the IR-9, which works 50-times faster than the IR-1 centrifuges”.

“The deal has become a no man’s land. We’re controlling less and less as it crumbles around us,” a senior European diplomat said. “In terms of credibility it becomes harder and harder to not react.”

Rouhani gave another two-month deadline to Britain, France and Germany to salvage the deal by protecting Iran’s economy from crippling U.S. sanctions reimposed in May after Washington’s withdrawal from the deal.

“We can’t unilaterally accept that we completely fulfill our commitments and they don’t follow up on their commitments,” Rouhani said.

Tehran says talks are possible if Washington lifts sanctions and returns to the deal.

“All these measures are reversible if other parties fulfill their commitments … We should be able to sell our oil and to transfer its money into the country,” Rouhani said, referring to U.S. sanctions on Iran’s oil and banking sectors.

(Additional reporting by John Irish in France, Francois Murphy in Vienna, Babak Dehghanpisheh in Geneva, Writing by Parisa Hafezi, Editing by Angus MacSwan)