U.S. says Navy ship ‘destroyed’ Iranian drone in Gulf

USS Boxer (LHD-4) ship sails near a tanker in the Arabian Sea off Oman July 17, 2019. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

By Steve Holland and Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States said on Thursday that a U.S. Navy ship had “destroyed” an Iranian drone in the Strait of Hormuz after the aircraft threatened the vessel, but Iran said it had no information about losing a drone.

In the latest episode to stir tensions in the Gulf, U.S. President Donald Trump told an event at the White House that the drone had flown to within 1,000 yards of the USS Boxer and had ignored “multiple calls to stand down.”

“This is the latest of many provocative and hostile actions by Iran against vessels operating in international waters. The United States reserves the right to defend our personnel, facilities and interests,” Trump said.

“The drone was immediately destroyed,” he added.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told reporters at the United Nations: “We have no information about losing a drone today.”

The Pentagon said in a statement that the USS Boxer, an amphibious assault ship, had taken “defensive action” against a drone on Thursday morning as the Boxer was moving into the Strait of Hormuz.

“We do assess it was an Iranian drone,” said Commander Rebecca Rebarich, a Pentagon spokeswoman.

Tensions in the Gulf region are high, with fears that the United States and Iran could stumble into war.

The United States has blamed Iran for a series of attacks since mid-May on shipping around the Strait of Hormuz, the world’s most important oil artery. Tehran rejects the allegations.

Iran in June shot down a U.S. military surveillance drone in the Gulf with a surface-to-air missile. Iran says the drone was in its airspace, but Washington says it was in international skies.

Trump said at the time the United States had come close to launching a military strike on Iran in retaliation for the downing of the U.S. drone.

The increased use of drones by Iran and its allies for surveillance and attacks across the Middle East is raising alarms in Washington.

The United States believes that Iran-linked militia in Iraq has recently increased their surveillance of American troops and bases in the country by using off-the-shelf, commercially available drones, U.S. officials say.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the drone on Thursday was brought down through electronic jamming.

NUCLEAR DEAL

Relations between the United States and Iran have worsened since last year when Trump abandoned a 2015 deal between world powers and Iran in which Tehran agreed to restrict nuclear work in return for the lifting of sanctions.

The United States has reimposed sanctions to throttle Iran’s oil trade and says it wants to increase pressure on Tehran to renegotiate the accord, discuss its ballistic missile program and modify its behavior in the Middle East, where Washington is allied to several Arab states opposed to Iran.

Iran’s clerical rulers have ruled out renegotiating the nuclear deal or holding talks on its missile program, which it says is purely defensive.

But Zarif told reporters on Thursday that Iran had offered to make a concession on its nuclear program – to ratify a document prescribing more intrusive inspections – if the United States abandoned its economic sanctions – a proposal that drew U.S. skepticism.

“If Iran wants to make a serious gesture, it should start by ending uranium enrichment immediately,” a U.S. senior administration official said, adding any talks should include “a permanent end to Iran’s malign nuclear ambitions, including its development of nuclear-capable missiles.”

Earlier on Thursday, the United States demanded Iran immediately release a vessel it seized in the Gulf, and a U.S. military commander in the region said the United States would work “aggressively” to ensure free passage of vessels through the vital waterway.

Iran played down the seizure of the ship, which it said was a small vessel that was smuggling oil.

Iranian state TV aired footage of a vessel called “RIAH.”

The Panamanian-flagged oil tanker MT Riah disappeared off trackers in Iranian territorial waters days ago.

“We do this (inspecting ships) every day. These are people who smuggle our oil,” Iran’s Press TV quoted Zarif as saying, adding: “It was a small ship used to smuggle 1 million liters – not 1 million barrels – of crude oil.”

Washington has recently beefed up its military presence and the U.S. Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain, says that Gulf Arab states have stepped up patrols.

Revolutionary Guards Commander-in-Chief Hossein Salami said on Thursday that Iran had adopted a defensive strategy, but warned that “if our enemies make any mistakes … our strategy can become an offensive one.”

Oil prices jumped on Thursday after news of the ship seizure. They later fell, however, on weakness in U.S. equities markets and an expectation that crude output would rise in the Gulf of Mexico following last week’s hurricane in the region.

The United States on Thursday imposed sanctions on an international network of companies and their agents it said were involved in the procurement of materials for Iran’s nuclear program.

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Idrees Ali; Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi and Tuqa Khalid in Dubai; Writing by Alistair Bell and Mary Milliken; Editing by Peter Cooney)

U.S. general says will work ‘aggressively’ to enable free passage in the Gulf

Saudi-led coalition officials show to U.S. Central Command chief General Kenneth McKenzie an exibit of weapons and missiles that is used by Houthi attacks against Saudi Arabia, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, July 18, 2019. REUTERS/Marwa Rashad

RIYADH (Reuters) – U.S. Central Command chief General Kenneth McKenzie said on Thursday it was talking to other countries about freedom of navigation in the Gulf and would work “aggressively” to find a solution to enable free passage.

The United States has beefed up its military presence in the Middle East over a perceived Iranian threat and is asking allies to help protect strategic waters off Iran and Yemen, following attacks on oil tankers in Gulf waters in recent months.

“We are currently talking with the international community about the right to freedom of navigation in the Middle East that will include passage to the Strait of Hormuz and passage to the Bab al Mandeb,” Mckenzie said.

Mckenzie made his comments before Iranian state TV broadcast a report that Iran had seized a foreign tanker smuggling fuel in the Gulf.

The U.S. general was talking to reporters in Riyadh at a joint news conference with General Prince Fahd bin Turki, commander of the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Iran-aligned Houthis in Yemen.

Asked if Saudi Arabia would have a role in a proposed international maritime security coalition, Prince Fahd said the coalition would continue to escort ships in the Red Sea.

“We have been doing that for the past few years and we have achieved great success in spite of some damage to civilian shipping,” Prince Fahd said. “So we’ve been active in this field, we are practicing this at the Red Sea at Bab al Mandeb.”

Earlier this month the Western-backed Sunni Muslim coalition led by Saudi Arabia said its naval forces foiled an attack on an unidentified commercial ship in the southern Red Sea by Houthi forces, which the group denied.

Washington and Riyadh have publicly blamed Iran and its proxies for the recent tanker attacks, a charge Tehran denies.

“We don’t believe war with Iran is inevitable and we don’t seek a war with Iran, what we seek is to deter Iran from the destabilizing and malign activities across the region,” McKenzie said.

The Houthis have stepped up missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia, recently targeting oil installations and airports in cities near the border with Yemen, fuelling tensions.

Saudi officials took McKenzie on a tour of an exhibit displaying missiles and drones Riyadh says were produced by Iran and used in the Houthi attacks. Tehran denies supplying the group with arms and the Houthis say they manufacture their own.

(Reporting By Marwa Rashad, writing by Aziz El Yaakoubi)

Britain says it fended off Iranian attempt to block its oil tanker

FILE PHOTO: A British Royal Navy patrol vessel guards the oil supertanker Grace 1, suspected of carrying Iranian crude oil to Syria, as it sits anchored in waters of the British overseas territory of Gibraltar, July 4, 2019. REUTERS/Jon Nazca/File Photo

By William Schomberg

LONDON (Reuters) – Three Iranian vessels tried to block a tanker passing through the Strait of Hormuz but backed off when confronted by a Royal Navy warship, the British government said on Thursday, raising the stakes in a test of nerves between Tehran and the West.

Britain urged Iran to “de-escalate the situation in the region” after the British Heritage oil tanker operated by BP was approached. The incident took place exactly a week after British Royal Marines seized an Iranian tanker, which London said was violating sanctions by bringing oil to Syria.

“HMS Montrose was forced to position herself between the Iranian vessels and British Heritage and issue verbal warnings to the Iranian vessels, which then turned away,” a British government spokesman said in a statement.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif dismissed as “worthless” the British allegation that Iran had sought to block the ship.

The incident followed President Donald Trump’s warning he would soon “substantially” increase U.S. sanctions on Iran as part of a drive to curb Iran’s nuclear program and force Tehran to change its regional behavior.

The United States blames Iran for a series of attacks on shipping in the world’s most important oil artery since mid-May, accusations Tehran rejects but which have raised fears the long-time foes could slip into direct military conflict.

They came as close as ever last month, when Iran shot down a U.S. drone and Trump ordered retaliatory air strikes, only to call them off minutes before impact.

“I’d expect the Iranians to continue to seek opportunities to harass and obstruct without sliding into war,” said Jon Alterman director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.

The United States quit an agreement last year between Iran and world powers to curb Iran’s nuclear program in return for granting it access to world trade. Washington sharply tightened sanctions against Iran since May with the aim of bringing its oil exports to zero. Iran responded by stepping up production of enriched uranium beyond limits in the nuclear deal.

Washington’s European allies disagreed with Trump’s decision to quit the nuclear pact and have tried to appear neutral. But Britain stepped into the crisis when it seized the Iranian tanker Grace 1 last week. Although EU states have not followed Washington in imposing sanctions on Iran, they have sanctions in place that forbid selling oil to Iran’s ally Syria.

A senior Iranian military commander on Thursday said Britain and the United States would regret detaining the vessel. Other Iranian officials have made similar statements, and some figures have been quoted as threatening to retaliate against British shipping.

KEY SHIPPING LANE

U.S. sanctions have effectively driven Iran from mainstream oil markets, depriving it of its main source of revenue and of the benefits it was meant to receive from its nuclear deal. Iran says it will return to full compliance with the agreement only if sanctions are lifted and Washington rejoins the pact.

BP CEO Bob Dudley, asked about the situation in the Gulf at an event at London’s Chatham House on Wednesday evening, said: “We’ve got to be super careful about our ships”.

An escalation in the Strait of Hormuz, the main outlet for Middle East oil traded around the globe, could drive up crude prices.

Maritime security sources said Britain was aiming to protect shipping lanes but there was no formal policy of escorting all UK ships through the area. The Montrose was there to ensure the safe passage of UK flagged ships when needed, they added.

Ship tracking information from data firm Refinitiv shows four other UK registered tankers now in the Gulf.

Bob Sanguinetti, chief executive with the UK Chamber of Shipping trade association, told Reuters the situation was tense and called for a de-escalation.

“UK shipowners are in regular contact with the relevant authorities and agencies regarding the security situation in the region, and we are confident that the RN (Royal Navy) will provide the necessary support to their vessels,” he said.

Oman, which hosts a joint British military base and shares the Strait of Hormuz with Iran, did not immediately comment. It has mediated between Tehran and the West and also allows the British and U.S. navies to use its ports on the Arabian Sea.

The United States is hoping to enlist allies in a military coalition to safeguard strategic waters off Iran and Yemen, Marine General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Tuesday.

Britain, France and Germany have sought to avoid being dragged into U.S. sanctions but say Iran must return to full compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal they were instrumental in brokering.

They have so far avoided triggering a dispute resolution process contained in the deal. Iran says it could take new steps in the next two months, including restarting dismantled centrifuges and purifying uranium to a sharply higher threshold, unless it is allowed to resume normal oil sales.

Francois Lecointre, the French armed forces chief, described the friction between the United States and Iran as a “clash of wills”.

“I think it is under control now… I don’t think it can spiral out of control but there can be escalation,” he told CNews television.

(Additional reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh in Geneva, Jonathan Saul in London, Sylvia Westall and Aziz El-Yaakoubi in Dubai; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Jon Boyle and Peter Graff)

Iran’s Zarif warns U.S. of ‘consequences’ over oil sanctions, Strait of Hormuz

FILE PHOTO: Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks during a news conference with Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohamed Ali Alhakim, in Baghdad, Iraq, March 10, 2019. REUTERS/Khalid Al-Mousily/File Photo

By Michelle Nichols and Lesley Wroughton

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The United States must be prepared for consequences if it tries to stop Iran from selling oil and using the Strait of Hormuz, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned on Wednesday, while also offering to negotiate prisoner swaps with Washington.

The United States on Monday demanded buyers of Iranian oil stop purchases by May or face sanctions, ending six months of waivers which allowed Iran’s eight biggest buyers, most of them in Asia, to continue importing limited volumes.

“We believe that Iran will continue to sell its oil. We will continue to find buyers for our oil and we will continue to use the Strait of Hormuz as a safe transit passage for the sale of our oil,” Zarif told an event at the Asia Society in New York.

Reinforcing Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s stance, Zarif warned: “If the United States takes the crazy measure of trying to prevent us from doing that, then it should be prepared for the consequences.” He did not give specifics.

Oil prices hit their highest level since November on Tuesday after Washington’s announcement.

When asked if the U.S. pressure campaign on Tehran was aimed at sparking further negotiations or regime change, Zarif said: “The B team wants regime change at the very least.” He described the B Team as including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton.

“It is not a crisis yet, but it is a dangerous situation. Accidents … are possible. I wouldn’t discount the B team plotting an accident anywhere in the region, particularly as we get closer to the election. We are not there yet.”

Zarif suggested possible cooperation with the United States to bring stability to Iraq and Afghanistan, a priority for both Tehran and Washington.

He also said he was willing to swap British-Iranian aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been detained in Iran since 2016, for an Iranian woman detained in Australia for the past three years on a U.S. extradition request.

“I feel sorry for them, and I have done my best to help,” Zarif said of Zaghari-Ratcliffe. “But nobody talks about this lady in Australia who gave birth to a child in prison. … I put this offering on the table publicly now – exchange them.”

Zarif then went on to say that Iran had told the U.S. administration six months ago that it was open to a prisoner swap deal, but had not yet received a response.

“All these people that are in prison inside the United States, on extradition requests from the United States, we believe their charges are phony. The United States believes the charges against these people in Iran are phony. Let’s not discuss that,” he said.

“Let’s have an exchange. I’m ready to do it and I have authority to do it,” Zarif said.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols and Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

Iran naval drills underway amid tensions with U.S.

A staff member removes the Iranian flag from the stage after a group picture with foreign ministers and representatives of the U.S., Iran, China, Russia, Britain, Germany, France and the European Union during the Iran nuclear talks at the Vienna International Center in Vienna, Austria July 14, 2015. To match Analysis USA-ELECTION/IRAN

By Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States believes Iran has started carrying out naval exercises in the Gulf, apparently moving up the timing of annual drills amid heightened tensions with Washington, U.S. officials told Reuters on Thursday.

One U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said possibly more than 100 vessels were involved in the drills, including small boats. A second official expected the drill could be wrapped up this week.

Iran has been furious over U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of an international nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions on Tehran. Senior Iranian officials have warned the country would not easily yield to a renewed U.S. campaign to strangle Iran’s vital oil exports.

The U.S. military’s Central Command on Wednesday confirmed it has seen an increase in Iranian naval activity, including in the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic waterway for oil shipments that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have threatened to block.

“We are monitoring it closely, and will continue to work with our partners to ensure freedom of navigation and free flow of commerce in international waterways,” said Navy Captain Bill Urban, the chief spokesman at Central Command, which oversees U.S. forces in the Middle East.

Central Command did not update its guidance on Thursday.

A third official said the Iranian naval operations did not appear to be affecting commercial maritime activity.

U.S. officials, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said the drills appeared designed to send a message to Washington, which is intensifying its economic and diplomatic pressure on Tehran but so far stopping short of using the U.S. military to more aggressively counter Iran and its proxies.

But Iran did not appear interested in drawing attention to them. Iranian authorities have yet to comment on them and several officials contacted by Reuters declined to comment.

Trump’s policies are already putting significant pressure on the Iranian economy, although U.S. intelligence suggests they may ultimately rally Iranians against the United States and strengthen Iran’s hardline rulers, officials say.

Iran’s currency plumbed new depths this week ahead of Aug. 7, when Washington is due to reimpose a first lot of sanctions following Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal.

Protests have broken out in Iran since the beginning of the year over high prices, water shortage, power cuts and alleged corruption.

On Tuesday, hundreds of people rallied in cities including Isfahan, Karaj, Shiraz and Ahvaz to protest high inflation caused in part by the weak rial.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington; additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Ankara; Editing by James Dalgleish)

U.S. Navy says will protect commerce in face of Iran oil threat

FILE PHOTO: The Sterett Destroyer escorts the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) during a transit through the Strait of Hormuz, February 14, 2012. REUTERS/Jumana El Heloueh/File Photo

By Bozorgmehr Sharafedin

LONDON (Reuters) – The U.S. Navy stands ready to ensure freedom of navigation and free flow of commerce, a spokesman for the U.S. military’s Central Command said on Thursday, after Iran warned it will block oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz.

Iran has threatened in recent days to close the strait, a vital route for world oil supplies, if Washington tries to cut Tehran’s exports.

An Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander said on Wednesday Iran would block any exports of crude for the Gulf in retaliation for hostile U.S. action.

“The U.S. and its partners provide, and promote security and stability in the region,” Central Command spokesman Navy Captain Bill Urban said in an email to Reuters.

Asked what would be the U.S. Naval Forces reaction if Iran blocks the Strait of Hormuz, he said: “Together, we stand ready to ensure the freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce wherever international law allows.”

The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Navy (IRGCN) lacks a strong navy and instead focuses on an asymmetric warfare capability in the Gulf. It possesses many speed boats and portable anti-ship missile launchers and can lay naval mines.

A senior U.S. military leader said in 2012 the Guards have the ability to block the Strait of Hormuz “for a period of time” but the United States would take action to reopen it in such an event.

In May, U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of a multinational deal under which sanctions on Iran were lifted in return for curbs to its nuclear program. Washington has since told countries they must stop buying Iranian oil from Nov. 4 or face financial measures.

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)