Syria condemns ‘cowardly’ U.S. air strikes on Iran-backed militias

By John Davison and Maha El Dahan

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Syria condemned U.S. air strikes against Iran-backed militias in the east of the country on Friday as a cowardly act and urged President Joe Biden not to follow “the law of the jungle”.

An Iraqi militia official close to Iran said the strikes killed one fighter and wounded four, but U.S. officials said they were limited in scope to show Biden’s administration will act firmly while trying to avoid a big regional escalation.

Washington and Tehran are seeking maximum leverage in attempts to return to the Iran nuclear deal.

“Syria condemns in the strongest terms the U.S. cowardly attack on areas in Deir al-Zor near the Syrian-Iraqi border,” the Syrian foreign ministry said in a statement.

“It (the U.S. administration) is supposed to stick to international legitimacy, not to the law of the jungle as (did) the previous administration.”

Russia, an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, also criticized the strikes and called for “unconditional respect of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria.”

“What has happened is very dangerous and could lead to an escalation in the whole region,” a Russian parliamentarian, Vladimir Dzhabarov, was quoted as saying by RIA news agency.

The strikes, early on Friday Middle Eastern time, targeted militia sites on the Syrian side of the Iraqi-Syrian border, where groups backed by Iran control an important crossing for weapons, personnel and goods.

Western officials and some Iraqi officials accuse Iran-backed groups of involvement in deadly rocket attacks against U.S. sites and personnel in Iraq in the last month.

ATTACKS ON U.S. FORCES IN IRAQ

The Iraqi militia official close to Iran said Friday’s air strikes had hit positions of the Kataib Hezbollah paramilitary group along the border.

Local sources and a medical source in eastern Syria told Reuters at least 17 people had been killed, but gave no further details. That toll could not be confirmed.

In recent attacks, a non-American contractor was killed at a U.S. military based at Erbil International Airport in Kurdish-run northern Iraq on Feb. 15 and, in the days that followed, rockets were fired at a base hosting U.S. forces, and near the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

Biden’s decision to strike only in Syria and not in Iraq gives Iraq’s government breathing room as it investigates the Erbil attack, which also wounded Americans.

Kataib Hezbollah has denied involvement in recent attacks against U.S. interests. Iran denies involvement in attacks on U.S. sites.

Several attacks, including the one on Erbil airport, have been claimed by little-known groups which some Iraqi and Western officials say are a front for established Iran-backed groups such as Kataib Hezbollah.

LIMITED RESPONSE

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement on Thursday that U.S. forces had conducted air strikes against infrastructure used by Iranian-backed militant groups.

“President Biden will act to protect American and Coalition personnel. At the same time, we have acted in a deliberate manner that aims to de-escalate the overall situation in both eastern Syria and Iraq,” Kirby said.

He said the strikes destroyed multiple facilities at a border control point used by a number of Iranian-backed militant groups, including Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the decision to carry out the strikes was meant to signal that, while the United States wanted to punish the militias, it did not want the situation to spiral into a bigger conflict.

The Iraqi military issued a statement saying it had not exchanged information with the United States over the targeting of locations in Syria, and that cooperation with the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq was limited to fighting Islamic State.

It was not clear how, or whether, the U.S. strikes might affect efforts to coax Iran back into negotiations about both sides resuming compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal.

(Reporting by John Davison, Amina Ismail, Baghdad newsroom, Maha El Dahan in Beirut, Kinda Makieh in Damascus, and Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart in Washington, and by Thomas Balmforth and Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber in Moscow, editing by Timothy Heritage)

Khamenei says Iran may enrich uranium to 60% purity if needed

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) – Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Monday Iran might enrich uranium up to 60% purity if the country needed it and would never yield to U.S. pressure over its nuclear program, state television reported.

Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with six powers, which it has been breaching since the United States withdrew in 2018, caps the fissile purity to which Tehran can refine uranium at 3.67%, well under the 20% achieved before the agreement and far below the 90% suitable for a nuclear weapon.

“Iran’s uranium enrichment level will not be limited to 20%. We will increase it to whatever level the country needs … We may increase it to 60%,” the TV quoted Khamenei as saying, upping the ante in a stand-off with U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration over the future of the fraying deal.

“Americans and the European parties to the deal have used unjust language against Iran … Iran will not yield to pressure. Our stance will not change,” Khamenei said.

U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said Khamenei’s comments “sounds like a threat” and declined to respond to what he described as “hypotheticals” and “posturing”.

He reiterated U.S. willingness to engage in talks with Iran about returning to the 2015 nuclear deal.

The Biden administration said last week it was ready to talk to Iran about both nations returning to the accord abandoned by former U.S. President Donald Trump.

Tehran said last week it was studying a European Union proposal for an informal meeting between current members of the deal and the United States, but has yet to respond to it.

Iran, which has resumed enriching to 20% in an apparent bid to heap pressure on the United States, has been at loggerheads with Washington over which side should take the initial step to revive the accord.

Although under domestic pressure to ease economic hardships worsened by sanctions, Iranian leaders insist Washington must end its punitive campaign first to restore the deal, while Washington says Tehran must first return to full compliance.

DIPLOMACY PATH

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Monday Washington intended to bolster and extend the 2015 pact, which aimed to limit Iran’s enrichment potential – a possible pathway to atomic bombs – in exchange for a lifting of most sanctions.

Blinken, addressing the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, said in a pre-recorded speech: “The United States remains committed to ensuring that Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon. Diplomacy is the best path to achieve that goal.”

Khamenei, in his televised remarks, repeated a denial of any Iranian intent to weaponize uranium enrichment.

He added: “That international Zionist clown (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) has said they won’t allow Iran to produce nuclear weapons. First of all, if we had any such intention, even those more powerful than him wouldn’t be able to stop us.”

To pressure the Biden administration to drop sanctions, Iran’s hardline-dominated parliament passed a law last year obliging the government to end roving snap inspections by the U.N. nuclear watchdog from Tuesday if sanctions are not lifted.

Iran said it would end the implementation of the so-called Additional Protocol, which allows International Atomic Energy Agency to carry out short-notice inspections, at midnight (2030 GMT).

To create room for diplomacy, the U.N. watchdog on Sunday reached a deal with Iran to cushion the blow of Iran’s reduced cooperation and refusal to permit short-notice inspections.

Iranian lawmakers protested on Monday at Tehran’s decision to permit “necessary” monitoring by U.N. inspectors for up to three months, saying this broke the new law.

(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Alison Williams)

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)

Iran says U.S. move to seize oil shipment is ‘act of piracy’

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran said on Monday that a U.S. move this month to seize a cargo of oil on the grounds that it came from Tehran was an act of piracy, adding that the shipment did not belong to the Iranian government.

Washington filed a lawsuit earlier this month to seize the cargo, alleging that Iran sought to mask the origin of the oil by transferring it to several vessels before it ended up aboard the Liberian-flagged Achilleas tanker destined for China.

Washington said the cargo contravened U.S. terrorism regulations.

“This shipment does not belong to the Iranian government. It belongs to the private sector,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh told a weekly news conference.

He did not elaborate on what he meant by the private sector.

The Achilleas last reported its position on Sunday as anchored within the Galveston Offshore Lightering Area, which is outside the U.S. Gulf port of Galveston, Refinitiv ship tracking data showed on Monday.

A U.S. official said last week that Washington had sold more than a million barrels of Iranian fuel seized under its sanctions program last year.

Tensions have mounted between Washington and Tehran since 2018, when former U.S. President Donald Trump abandoned Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with six major powers and reimposed sanctions on the country.

U.S. President Joe Biden has pledged to revive the nuclear deal if Tehran returns to full compliance with the accord.

“It is very unfortunate that such an act of piracy is happening under the new U.S. administration … a solution should be found to stop such acts of piracy by anyone for any reason,” the spokesman Khatibzadeh added.

(Additional reporting by Jonathan Saul in London; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Susan Fenton)

In first for Europe, Iran envoy sentenced to 20-year prison term over bomb plot

By Clement Rossignol and Robin Emmott

ANTWERP, Belgium (Reuters) – An Iranian diplomat accused of planning to bomb a meeting of an exiled opposition group was sentenced to 20 years in prison on Thursday in the first trial of an Iranian official for suspected terrorism in Europe since Iran’s 1979 revolution.

Assadolah Assadi was found guilty of attempted terrorism after a foiled plot to bomb a rally of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) near Paris in June 2018, Belgian prosecution lawyers and civil parties to the prosecution said.

The third counsellor at Iran’s embassy in Vienna, he was arrested in Germany before being transferred to Belgium for trial. French officials said he was running an Iranian state intelligence network and was acting on orders from Tehran.

Assadi did not attend his hearings, which were held behind closed doors under high security, and neither he nor his lawyer have commented.

In March, Assadi warned authorities of possible retaliation by unidentified groups if he was found guilty, according to a police document obtained by Reuters. The courtroom was heavily guarded, with armored vehicles outside and police helicopters overhead.

In a statement carried by Iranian state television, Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said: “Unfortunately, Belgium and some European countries, under the influence of the hostile atmosphere of a terrorist group, have taken such an illegal and unjustifiable action.

“Therefore,” he said, “they must be held accountable for the gross violation of the rights of our country’s diplomats.”

Prosecution lawyer Georges-Henri Beauthier said outside the court in Antwerp: “The ruling shows two things: A diplomat doesn’t have immunity for criminal acts…and the responsibility of the Iranian state in what could have been carnage.”

COMMERCIAL FLIGHT

Investigators assessed that Assadi brought the explosives for the plot with him on a commercial flight to Austria from Iran, according to Belgium’s federal prosecutor.

Then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani gave the keynote address at the rally, which was attended by diplomats from many countries.

The ruling came at a sensitive time for Western relations with Iran. New U.S. President Joe Biden is considering whether to lift economic sanctions on Iran re-imposed by Trump and rejoin fellow world powers in the historic 2015 accord with the Islamic Republic aimed at containing its nuclear program.

While the European Union has imposed human rights sanctions on Iranian individuals, Brussels has sought closer diplomatic and business ties with Tehran.

But it says it cannot turn a blind eye to terrorism, including the two killings in the Netherlands and a failed assassination attempt in Denmark, blamed on Iran.

“This case is not an aberration but rather is part of a pattern of the Islamic Republic’s terrorism in Europe and around the world,” said Toby Dershowitz at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonpartisan think-tank in Washington D.C.

Three other Iranians were sentenced in the trial for their role as accomplices, with 15-, 17- and 18-year sentences handed down respectively by three judges who did not comment on Thursday. One of their lawyers said he would recommend an appeal, although it was not clear if Assadi would do so.

In an interview with Reuters, NCRI chief Maryam Rajavi called the ruling a turning point as it proved Iran was carrying out state-sponsored terrorism. She said the EU could not stand by without reacting even if some in the 27-nation bloc were pushing for more dialogue with Tehran.

“Silence and inaction would be the worst policy and embolden the regime in its behavior,” she said, speaking through an interpreter, calling for EU sanctions on key officials, including Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who heads up nuclear diplomacy with the major powers.

“The European Union and governments must hold the regime accountable,” Rajavi said.

The EU declined to comment. French officials did not immediately respond to request for comment.

The Islamic Republic has repeatedly dismissed the charges, calling the attack allegations a “false flag” stunt by the NCRI, which it considers a terrorist group.

(Reporting by Clement Rossignol in Antwerp and Robin Emmott in Brussels with additional reporting by John Irish in Paris and Parisa Hafezi in Dubai; Editing by Marine Strauss, Philippa Fletcher and Mark Heinrich)

Iran works on uranium metal for reactor fuel in new breach of nuclear deal

By Francois Murphy

VIENNA (Reuters) – Iran has started work on uranium metal-based fuel for a research reactor, the U.N. nuclear watchdog and Tehran said on Wednesday, in the latest breach of its nuclear deal with six major powers as the country presses for a lifting of U.S. sanctions.

Iran has been accelerating its breaches of the deal in the past two months. Some of those steps were required by a law passed in response to the killing of its top nuclear scientist in November, which Tehran has blamed on its arch-foe Israel.

They are also, however, part of a process started by Tehran in 2019 of committing breaches in response to U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2018 withdrawal from the deal and his re-imposition of U.S. sanctions that the deal lifted in exchange for restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities.

“(International Atomic Energy Agency) Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi today informed IAEA Member States about recent developments regarding Iran’s plans to conduct R&D activities on uranium metal production as part of its declared aim to design an improved type of fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor,” the IAEA said in a statement.

The agency issues ad hoc reports to member states when Iran commits a new breach of the deal, though it declines to call them breaches, leaving that call to parties to the 2015 accord.

The deal specifically imposes a 15-year ban on Iran producing or acquiring uranium metal, a sensitive material that can be used in the core of a nuclear bomb.

The IAEA’s confidential report to member states, obtained by Reuters, said Iran had indicated it plans to produce uranium metal from natural uranium and then produce uranium metal enriched up to 20% for fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor.

The deal also says that can only happen in small batches and in consultation with parties to the deal after 10 years.

Separately Iran also plans to enrich uranium to 20%, a level it last reached before the 2015 deal, at its Fordow site buried in a mountain, and it started that process last week. It had so far only gone as far as 4.5%, above the 3.67% limit imposed by the deal but still far short of the 90% that is weapons grade.

U.S. intelligence agencies and the IAEA believe Iran had a secret, coordinated nuclear weapons program that it halted in 2003. Iran denies ever seeking nuclear weapons and says its aims with nuclear energy are entirely peaceful.

Iran told the agency on Wednesday, however, that “there is no limitation on (its) R&D activities” and “modification and installation of the relevant equipment for the mentioned R&D activities have been already started” at its Fuel Plate Fabrication Plant in Isfahan, the IAEA report said.

(Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Dubai, Editing by William Maclean)

Iran launches missile drill amid rising tensions with U.S

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran’s military launched a short-range naval missile drill on Wednesday, Iranian state TV reported, at a time of high tension between arch foes Tehran and Washington.

Iran has one of the biggest missile programs in the Middle East, regarding such weapons as an important deterrent and retaliatory force against U.S. and other adversaries in the event of war.

The West sees Iran’s missiles both as a conventional military threat to regional stability and a possible delivery mechanism for nuclear weapons should Tehran develop them.

The Iranian-made warship Makran, which state media described as Iran’s biggest warship with a helicopter pad, and a missile-launching ship called Zereh (armor) were taking part in the two-day exercise in the Gulf of Oman.

Tensions between the United States and Iran have risen since 2018, when President Donald Trump abandoned the 2015 nuclear deal. The United States restored harsh sanctions to pressure Iran into negotiating stricter curbs on its nuclear program, ballistic missile development and support for regional proxy forces.

In recent years, there have been periodic confrontations between Iran’s military and U.S. forces in the Gulf, where Tehran holds annual exercises to display the Islamic Republic’s military might to confront “foreign threats.”

Last week, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps seized a South Korean-flagged tanker in Gulf waters and detained its crew amid tensions between Tehran and Seoul over Iranian funds frozen in South Korean banks due to U.S. sanctions.

In early 2019, Iran heightened tensions in the world’s busiest oil waterway by seizing British-flagged tanker Stena Impero two weeks after a British warship had intercepted an Iranian tanker off the coast of Gibraltar.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Iran vows “decisive response” to any Israeli move against it

DUBAI (Reuters) -Iran said on Tuesday it would deliver a “decisive response” to any Israeli move against it, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would not allow Tehran to develop nuclear weapons, a news agency close to the Revolutionary Guards said.

On Monday, Iran said it resumed 20% uranium enrichment at a nuclear facility, a move that coincides with rising tensions with the United States. The decision is the latest of several Iranian breaches of a 2015 nuclear accord with world powers.

Netanyahu said the move was aimed at developing nuclear weapons and Israel would never allow Tehran to build them. Iran says it has never sought nuclear weapons.

Iran’s Nour News quoted an unnamed security official as saying: “This regime (Israel) should be aware that any aggression against Iran’s interests and security from any side and in any way, whether (Israel) admits or denies responsibility, will face a decisive response from Iran against this regime.”

The statement was widely carried by Iranian news agencies and state media.

Separately, Iran on Tuesday gave more details about its enrichment decision by saying it had the capacity to produce up to 9 kg of 20% enriched uranium per month.

“At present, we produce 17 to 20 grams of 20% uranium every hour,” Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, said according to state media. “We have a monthly production capacity of 8 to 9 kg to reach the 120 kg stipulated by the law.”

The decision to enrich to 20 percent purity was one of many moves mentioned in a law passed by Iran’s hardline-dominated parliament last month in response to the killing of the country’s top nuclear scientist, which Tehran has blamed on Israel.

Tehran started violating the accord in 2019 in a step-by-step response to Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear accord in 2018 and the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions lifted under the deal.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom, Editing by William Maclean)

Iran resumes 20% uranium enrichment amid rising tensions with U.S

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) -Iran has resumed 20% uranium enrichment at an underground nuclear facility, the government said on Monday, breaching a 2015 nuclear pact with major powers.

Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Iran’s arch foe Israel, said the move was aimed at developing nuclear weapons and Israel would never allow Tehran to build them.

The enrichment decision, Iran’s latest contravention of the accord, coincides with increasing tensions between Iran and the United States.

Tehran started violating the accord in 2019 in a step-by-step response to Trump’s withdrawal from it in 2018 and the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions lifted under the deal.

The agreement’s main aim was to extend the time Iran would need to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb, if it chose to, to at least a year from roughly two to three months. It also lifted international sanctions against Tehran.

“A few minutes ago, the process of producing 20% enriched uranium has started in Fordow enrichment complex,” government spokesman Ali Rabiei told Iranian state media.

The U.N. nuclear watchdog confirmed that Iran had started the process of enriching uranium to 20% purity at its Fordow site.

“Iran today began feeding uranium already enriched up to 4.1 percent U-235 into six centrifuge cascades at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant for further enrichment up to 20%,” the IAEA said in a statement on a report that was sent to member states.

The step was one of many mentioned in a law passed by Iran’s parliament last month in response to the killing of the country’s top nuclear scientist, which Tehran has blamed on Israel.

“Our measures are fully reversible upon FULL compliance by ALL (parties to the deal),” tweeted Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Tehran insists it can quickly reverse its breaches if U.S. sanctions are removed.

NUCLEAR WATCHDOG

The White House National Security Council had no comment, and referred queries to the U.S. State Department, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Tehran’s move could further hinder efforts to salvage the pact as its breaches have increasingly worried some of the deal’s other parties, which have urged Iran to act responsibly.

In Brussels, a European Union Commission spokesperson said that the “move, if confirmed, would constitute a considerable departure from Iran’s commitments”.

On Jan 1, the IAEA said Tehran had told the watchdog it planned to resume enrichment up to 20% at the Fordow site, which is buried inside a mountain.

“The process of gas injection to centrifuges has started a few hours ago and the first product of uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas will be available in a few hours,” Rabiei said.

Iran had earlier breached the deal’s 3.67% limit on the purity to which it can enrich uranium, but it had only gone up to 4.5% so far, well short of the 20% level and of the 90% that is weapons-grade.

U.S. intelligence agencies and the IAEA believe Iran had a secret, coordinated nuclear weapons program that it halted in 2003. Iran denies ever having had one.

In Jerusalem, Netanyahu said Iran’s enrichment decision could be explained only as a bid to “continue to carry out its intention to develop a military nuclear program.” “Israel will not allow Iran to produce nuclear weapons,” he added

(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington, Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem, Michael Shields and Francois Murphy in Vienna and Marine Strauss in Brussels Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by William Maclean)

Iran’s probe into downing of airliner has major flaws – Canada report

By David Ljunggren

OTTAWA (Reuters) – Iran is not conducting its probe into the downing of a civilian airliner in January properly and many questions remain unanswered, an independent Canadian report into the tragedy said on Tuesday.

The 79-page document is the latest expression of frustration from Western nations into how Tehran is handling the aftermath of a disaster that claimed 176 lives.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards say they accidentally shot down the Ukraine International Airlines plane shortly after take off, mistaking it for a missile when tensions with the United States were high. Many of the victims were Canadian citizens or permanent residents.

Former Canadian cabinet minister Ralph Goodale, charged with helping the victims’ families and examining how to deal with similar disasters in future, said “many of the key details of this horrific event” remain unknown.

“Iran bears responsibility for that because … it has not conducted its investigations (safety, criminal or otherwise) in a truly independent, objective and transparent manner, and answers to critical questions” are absent, he wrote in the report.

Last month, a governing panel at the United Nations’ aviation agency urged Iran to accelerate the investigation. Later in November, Ukraine said Iran was dragging its feet.

In the hours before the disaster, Iran had fired missiles at U.S. bases in Iraq. Five days earlier, Washington had killed a Revolutionary Guards commander with a drone strike in Iraq.

Goodale said Iran needed to explain how it had assessed the risks to civilian aircraft in its airspace and what it had told operators. He also said Tehran had to reveal why it had left the airspace open and also why exactly the Guards had decided to down the plane.

Canada, working with other nations who lost citizens, is pressing Iran for reparations while “seeking a full and candid accounting of what exactly happened” and a formal apology, Goodale said.

(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Alistair Bell)