Trump to host Israel-United Arab Emirates deal-signing ceremony on Sept 15

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump will hold a Sept. 15 signing ceremony for a groundbreaking Middle East agreement normalizing relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, a senior White House official said on Tuesday.

As part of the deal, announced at the White House on Aug. 13 following what officials said were 18 months of talks, the Gulf state agreed to normal relations with Israel, while Israel agreed to continue with plans to suspend its annexation of the West Bank.

The senior White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan would lead the two delegations to the ceremony.

“I am proud to embark next week to Washington, at the invitation of President Trump, to take part in the this historic ceremony at the White House for the foundation of the peace treaty between Israel and the United (Arab) Emirates,” Netanyahu wrote on Twitter.

Trump and other administration officials have said they expect Saudi Arabia and other countries to follow suit in recognizing Israel.

Trump senior adviser Jared Kushner and other top administration officials accompanied an Israeli delegation last week on the first flight from Israel to the United Arab Emirates to celebrate the agreement.

Iran has dismissed the agreement, which also served to firm up opposition to Tehran, a regional power seen by the UAE, Israel and the United States as the main threat in the Middle East.

The deal falls short of any grand Middle East peace plan to resolve decades of conflict between Israel and the Palestinians despite Trump’s pledge to do so.

The White House hope is that more such deals between Israel and the Gulf states will emerge, prompting the Palestinians to join negotiations.

Trump proposed a peace plan in January that heavily favored the Israelis, but it has not advanced in any significant way.

The Palestinian leadership initially called the accord “betrayal” and a “stab in the back of the Palestinian cause,” but has curbed its criticism, according to a draft resolution ahead of an Arab League meeting in Cairo on Wednesday.

The draft, seen by Reuters, does not include a call to condemn, or act against, the Emirates over the U.S.-brokered deal.

The United Arab Emirates is planning to make its first official visit to Israel on Sept. 22, a source familiar with the provisional itinerary said on Monday.

(Reporting by Steve Holland, additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Franklin Paul and Howard Goller)

Iran’s Rouhani: Talks possible if U.S. returns to 2015 nuclear deal

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) – If the United States wants an agreement with Iran, it must first come back to Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with six powers that Washington abandoned two years ago, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Tuesday.

“Washington’s maximum pressure policy on Iran has failed 100%…If Washington wants an agreement with us, then they should apologize for exiting the deal and return to it,” Rouhani told a televised news conference.

Long-tense relations between the two adversaries have almost come to blows since 2018 when U.S. President Donald Trump ditched the deal reached by his predecessor Barack Obama and reimposed sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy.

In response to what Washington calls its “maximum pressure” campaign to force Iran to negotiate a new deal, Tehran has breached key limits on nuclear activity imposed by the 2015 accord, under which the Islamic Republic accepted curbs on its uranium enrichment program in return for relief from sanctions.

Trump has pledged to strike a new deal – under which he would seek stricter limits on enrichment, an end to Tehran’s ballistic missile program and involvement in various Middle East conflicts – within weeks if he wins re-election in November.

“Trump has been talking a lot … The next president, whether it is Trump or someone else, must adopt a different approach towards Iran,” Rouhani said.

In response to U.S. sanctions, Tehran has breached key limits on nuclear activity imposed by the 2015 accord.

Last week the United States moved to reinstate global U.N. sanctions on Iran, including an arms embargo, arguing Tehran was in violation of the 2015 nuclear deal even though Washington itself abandoned that agreement two years ago.

Council members France, Britain and Germany (E3), which along with Russia and China remain in the accord, have dismissed the move as void given Washington’s departure from the deal and said it was harming efforts to restrain Iran’s nuclear activity.

But France’s foreign minister, echoing the stance of Britain and Germany, told his Iranian counterpart that Paris was worried about the impact of the arms embargo expiring in October.

“The minister reiterated our concern about Iran’s destabilizing activities and the consequences of the expiration of the…embargo on conventional arms, and told him of the E3’s determination to seek solutions preserving security and regional stability,” ministry deputy spokesman Francois Delmas said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, Iran’s arch-enemy in the Middle East, urged Britain to join the U.S. bid to reimpose U.N. sanctions during a visit by British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to Jerusalem.

“Look at Iran’s aggression today, without a nuclear weapon. What a huge danger Iran would be to the entire world if it did get a nuclear weapon,” Netanyahu told Raab, according to a statement released by the premier’s office.

Iran has repeatedly denied seeking nuclear weapons.

(Reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Dubai, John Irish in Paris and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Pompeo likely to visit U.N. on Thursday in pursuit of sanctions on Iran: diplomats

By Michelle Nichols

NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will likely travel to New York on Thursday to seek a return of all U.N. sanctions on Iran and meet with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, diplomats and a U.N. official said.

To trigger a return of the sanctions, the United States will submit a complaint to the 15-member U.N. Security Council about Iran’s non-compliance with the nuclear deal, even though Washington quit the accord in 2018.

Pompeo will likely meet with Indonesia’s U.N. Ambassador Dian Triansyah Djani, the Security Council president for August, to submit the complaint, diplomats said. Pompeo is also due to meet with Guterres, a U.N. official said.

In response to what the United States calls its “maximum pressure” campaign – a bid to get Iran to negotiate a new deal – Tehran has breached several central limits of the 2015 deal, including on its stock of enriched uranium.

But diplomats say the sanctions snapback process will be tough and messy as Russia, China and other countries on the Security Council challenge the legality of the U.S. move given that Washington itself is no longer complying with what Trump called the “worst deal ever” and has imposed unilateral sanctions on Iran.

The United States had threatened to use the sanctions snapback provision in the nuclear deal after it lost a bid in the Security Council on Friday to extend an arms embargo on Tehran, which is due to expire in October.

Once Washington submits its complaint about Iran to the Security Council, the body has 30 days to adopt a resolution to extend sanctions relief for Tehran or else the measures will automatically snapback. Any attempt to extend the sanctions relief would be vetoed by the United States.

The U.S. mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

Iran says U.S. arms embargo push at U.N. will fail – TV

DUBAI (Reuters) – U.S. efforts to get the U.N. Security Council to extend an arms embargo on Tehran would fail, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said in a televised speech on Wednesday, a day after U.S. officials circulated a revised proposal.

Washington streamlined its bid on Tuesday to win more support in the 15-member Security Council but it is unlikely to overcome opposition by veto powers Russia and China to extending the weapons embargo that ends in October under Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with six world powers.

“Until today, the U.S. has failed politically, and it will fail again…if such a resolution is passed…Its initiators will be responsible for the consequences,” said Rouhani, without elaborating on what Tehran’s reaction could be.

The new U.S. resolution would extend Iran’s arms ban “until the Security Council decides otherwise,” stating it is “essential to the maintenance of international peace and security”.

The previous U.S. draft resolution was described by diplomats and analysts as “maximalist.” It would have required countries to inspect cargo going to or coming from Iran and included an annex of individuals and entities for targeted sanctions.

Separately, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the revised U.S. draft was a “very illegal” resolution.

“I am certain that the Security Council will reject (it).”

Although U.S. President Donald Trump exited the nuclear deal in 2018, Washington has threatened to use a provision in the accord to trigger a return of all U.N. sanctions on Iran if the Security Council does not extend the arms embargo indefinitely.

Renewed sanctions – a move known as “snapback” – would likely kill the nuclear deal, under which Iran agreed to curb its sensitive uranium enrichment program in exchange for lifting most sanctions on Tehran.

Washington has reimposed harsh economic and financial sanctions on the Islamic Republic since 2018. In retaliation, Iran has gradually scaled back its commitments set by the nuclear deal.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

U.S. Iran envoy Brian Hook stepping down as key U.N. arms embargo vote looms

By Humeyra Pamuk and Michelle Nichols

(Reuters) – Top U.S. envoy for Iran Brian Hook is leaving his post and Elliott Abrams, the U.S. special representative for Venezuela, will add Iran to his role “following a transition period” with Hook, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday.

Hook’s surprise departure comes at a critical time when Washington has been intensely lobbying at the United Nations to extend an arms embargo on Iran and as the U.N. Security Council prepares to hold a vote on the U.S. resolution next week.

“We’re going to continue to make the case for this,” Hook told reporters on Thursday morning, hours before his departure was announced. “We hope that the council can find a way.”

It was not immediately clear when Hook’s tenure would formally end and whether he would see through the vote or not.

Pompeo did not give a reason for Hook’s decision to leave but wrote in a tweet that Hook was moving on to the private sector. He described him as a “trusted adviser and a good friend” who has achieved “historic results” in countering Tehran and secured the release of U.S. citizens detained by Iran.

Hook, 52, was appointed to the top Iran role at the State Department in late 2018 and has been instrumental in Washington’s intensifying pressure campaign on Tehran after President Donald Trump pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and the world powers.

Opponents criticized Hook and the administration for overly harsh and indiscriminate sanctions, which they said were hurting ordinary Iranians and failing to change the behavior of the Iranian government.

The U.S. bid at the Security Council to extend the arms embargo is a key test that some diplomats say will likely fail as it lacks the necessary support and veto powers Russia and China have already signaled their opposition.

If the United States is unsuccessful in its bid, it has threatened to trigger a return of all U.N. sanctions under a process known as snapback. Some diplomats have suggested Washington will likely start the snapback process, which could take up to 30 days, by the end of August.

Abrams, 72, a Republican foreign policy veteran, was named U.S. special representative for Venezuela in January 2019 and has led a hard-line approach aimed at ousting Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

U.S. officials have said privately that Trump has been frustrated by the failure to remove Maduro, who retains the support of the Venezuelan military, as well from Russia, China, Cuba and Iran.

Abrams has recently been dealing with U.S. concerns about a growing alliance between Iran and Venezuela, both OPEC members under heavy U.S. sanctions. Iran in recent months has sent fuel tankers to gasoline-short Venezuela, drawing U.S. ire.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick; writing by Michelle Nichols; editing by Diane Craft, Dan Grebler and Jonathan Oatis)

Crisis-weary Lebanon braces for Hariri tribunal verdict

By Tom Perry

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Fifteen years after a truck bomb killed Lebanon’s former Sunni leader Rafik al-Hariri in Beirut, triggering regional upheaval, a U.N.-backed court trying four suspects from Shi’ite Hezbollah delivers a verdict on Friday that could shake the country again.

The defendants, members of the powerful Iran-backed group, have been tried in absentia on charges of planning and arranging the 2005 bombing which killed the former prime minister who spearheaded Lebanon’s reconstruction after its long civil war.

Hariri’s assassination prompted mass protests in Beirut and a wave of international pressure which forced Syria to end its 29-year military presence in Lebanon after the U.N. investigator linked it with the bombing.

The assassination also inflamed political and sectarian tensions inside Lebanon and across the Middle East, particularly when investigators started probing potential Hezbollah links to the death of a politician who was backed by the West as well as Sunni Gulf Arab states opposed to Tehran.

Hezbollah, which is both a political party in Lebanon’s government and a heavily armed guerrilla group, denies any role in Hariri’s killing and dismisses the Netherlands-based tribunal as politicized.

Few expect the defendants to be handed over if convicted, but any guilty verdicts could pose a problem to the government and deepen rifts unresolved since the 1975-1990 civil war. The country is already reeling from the worst economic crisis in decades and a deepening COVID-19 outbreak.

Hezbollah has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States, Canada, Germany, Britain, Argentina and Honduras as well as the Sunni Muslim Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which includes Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait. The EU classifies Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist group, but not its political wing.

Hariri’s supporters, including his son Saad who subsequently also served as prime minister, say they are not seeking revenge or confrontation, but that the court verdict must be respected.

“We… look forward to August 7 being a day of truth and justice for Lebanon and a day of punishment for the criminals,” Saad Hariri said last week.

“AVOIDING STRIFE”

Hariri stepped down as prime minister in October after failing to address demands of protesters demonstrating against years of corruption by a ruling elite which has driven Lebanon to its current financial crisis.

His successor Hassan Diab, backed by Hezbollah and its allies, says the country must avoid further turmoil over the tribunal verdicts. “Confronting strife is a priority,” Diab tweeted last week.

In the Feb. 14, 2005 bombing, a truck laden with 3,000 kg of high-grade explosives blew up as Rafik Hariri’s motorcade passed Beirut’s waterfront Saint Georges hotel, killing him and 21 other people and leaving a huge crater in the road.

Salim Jamil Ayyash, Hassan Habib Merhi, Assad Hassan Sabra and Hussein Hassan Oneissi are charged with conspiracy to commit a terrorist attack. Ayyash is charged with committing a terrorist act, homicide and attempted homicide.

Prosecutors said data culled from telephone networks showed that the defendants called each other from dozens of mobile phones to monitor Hariri in the months before the attack and to coordinate their movements on the day itself.

The men have not been seen in public for years.

Hezbollah has often questioned the tribunal’s integrity and neutrality, saying its work had been tainted by false witnesses and reliance on telephone records that Israeli spies arrested in Lebanon could have manipulated.

“It is Hezbollah’s right to have doubts about the court, which transformed into political score-settling far from the truth,” said Salem Zahran, an analyst with links to Hezbollah leaders. Any verdict “has no value” to the group, he said.

Nabil Boumonsef, deputy editor-in-chief of Lebanon’s An-Nahar newspaper, said neither Saad Hariri nor Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah wanted to escalate tensions.

But he expected Hariri to call for the defendants to be handed over if found guilty – which would leave Hezbollah on the defensive politically despite its military strength. If the group refused to surrender them it could put the government which it helped put together in difficulty.

As it tries to tackle the deep economic crisis, a guilty verdict could also jeopardise Lebanon’s efforts, which have been supported by France, to win international aid.

“France… will have to take a position on Hezbollah after the verdict comes out on Aug. 7,” Boumonsef said.

France hosted a donor meeting in Paris in 2018 when Beirut won more than $11 billion in pledges for infrastructure investment. Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told Lebanese leaders in Beirut last month that Paris was ready to mobilize international support if Lebanon moved ahead with reform.

(Writing by Dominic Evans; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

Ukraine: it’s too early to blame human error for downing of passenger plane in Iran

KYIV (Reuters) – Ukraine’s foreign minister said on Tuesday it was soon to blame human error for the shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger airliner near Tehran in January, challenging the findings of Iran’s Civil Aviation Organisation (CAO).

The CAO said in an interim report that the plane was accidentally downed, killing 176 people on board, because of a misalignment of a radar system and lack of communication between the air defense operator and his commanders.

But Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told an online briefing that many questions remained unanswered.

“I want to clearly emphasize: it is early to say that the plane was shot down as a result of human error, as the Iranian side claims,” he said. “We have many questions, and we need a large number of authoritative, unbiased, objective answers about what happened.”

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards shot down the Ukraine International Airlines flight with a ground-to-air missile on Jan. 8 shortly after the plane took off from Tehran. Iran later called it a “disastrous mistake” by forces who were on high alert during a confrontation with the United States.

Tehran last month said it would send the black box flight recorders from the downed airliner to France for analysis and that experts from the United States, Canada, France, Britain and Ukraine would take part in the decoding.

Kuleba said an Iranian delegation was due to arrive in Kiev later this month to discuss compensation. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in February Kiev was not satisfied with the size of compensation Iran had offered.

(Reporting by Pavel Polityuk, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Iran lauds arms supply to Palestinians against ‘tumor’ Israel

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran’s Supreme Leader on Friday denounced Israel as a “tumor” to be removed and hailed Tehran’s supply of arms to Palestinians, drawing swift condemnation from the United States, European Union and Israel.

Opposition to Israel is a core belief for Shi’ite Muslim-led Iran. The Islamic Republic supports Palestinian and Lebanese armed groups opposed to peace with Israel, which Tehran refuses to recognize.

“The Zionist regime (Israel) is a deadly, cancerous tumor in the region. It will undoubtedly be uprooted and destroyed,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in an online speech.

The United States and European Union rejected the comments.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Twitter dismissed them as “disgusting and hateful anti-Semitic remarks” that did not represent the tradition of tolerance of ordinary Iranians.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said they were “totally unacceptable and represent a deep source of concern”.

Although leaders of Palestinian militant groups in Gaza, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, have frequently praised Iran’s financial and military support, Khamenei had not himself previously given public confirmation of Tehran’s weapons supply.

“Iran realized Palestinian fighters’ only problem was lack of access to weapons. With divine guidance and assistance, we planned, and the balance of power has been transformed in Palestine, and today the Gaza Strip can stand against the aggression of the Zionist enemy and defeat it,” he said.

Israeli Defence Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz said: “The State of Israel has great challenges in a variety of arenas. Khamenei’s statement that Israel is a ‘cancerous tumor’ illustrates this more than anything.”

He said on Facebook: “I do not suggest anyone to test us …We will be prepared for all threats, and by any means.”

In a statement described as a response to Khamenei, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “Those that invoke the threat of destruction against Israel put themselves in similar danger.”

RALLIES CANCELLED

Zeyad al-Nakhala, chief of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which has publicly admitted getting Iranian arms and funds, praised Khamenei’s comments. “We are ready for a long jihad and victory is granted,” he said in remarks distributed by the group.

Iranian officials have repeatedly called for an end to Israel, including by a referendum that would exclude most of its Jews while including Palestinians in the region and abroad.

Khamenei suggested global attention on the coronavirus crisis had helped obscure wrongs done to Palestinians. “The long-lasting virus of Zionists will be eliminated,” he added.

Khamenei was speaking on Iran’s annual Quds Day, which uses the Arabic name for Jerusalem, held on the last Friday of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

Iran cancelled nationwide Quds Day rallies due to coronavirus. Iran is one of the most affected countries in the region with 7,300 deaths and a total of 131,652 infections.

Khamenei also denounced what he called treason by “political and cultural mercenaries in Muslim countries” helping Zionists to downplay the Palestine issue, an apparent reference to some Arab states including Iran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia.

(Additional reporting by Rami Ayyub in Tel Aviv, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by William Maclean/Mark Heinrich)

Thousands of Iranians mark revolution anniversary amid peak tensions with U.S.

DUBAI (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of Iranians poured into the streets of Tehran and other cities on Tuesday morning to commemorate the 41st anniversary of the Islamic revolution, against a backdrop of escalating tensions with the United States.

State TV showed video footage of rallies in at least half a dozen cities outside the capital, including Mashhad, Ahvaz and Kerman, with people holding signs that read, “Death to America” and “Death to Israel”.

Iran almost got into a full-blown conflict with the United States last month after a U.S. drone strike killed top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad on Jan. 3, prompting Iran to retaliate with a missile barrage against a U.S. base in Iraq days later.

Tensions spiked between Iran and the United States after U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from a multilateral nuclear deal with Iran in 2018 and reimposed sanctions in a bid to pressure Tehran to negotiate over its ballistic missile program and ties with regional proxy groups.

Missiles were put on display as part of the anniversary celebrations, according to the Tasnim news agency. Iran’s state TV showed archival footage of missile launches and underground missile storage facilities as part of its anniversary coverage.

The missile program is not intended for attacks on neighboring countries, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Monday.

(Reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh; Editing by Stephen Coates)

Recording shows Iran knew immediately it had shot down plane: Zelenskiy

By Natalia Zinets and Babak Dehghanpisheh

KIEV/DUBAI (Reuters) – A leaked audio recording of an Iranian pilot talking to the control tower in Tehran shows that Iran knew immediately it had shot down a Ukrainian airliner last month, despite denying it for days, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskiy said.

On the recording, played on a Ukrainian television station late on Sunday, the pilot of another plane can be heard saying he saw “the light of a missile” in the sky before Ukrainian International Airways flight 752 crashed in an explosion.

Tehran blamed the Ukrainian authorities for leaking what it described as confidential evidence, and said it would no longer share material with Ukraine from the investigation into the crash.

All 176 people aboard the flight were killed when the plane crashed shortly after takeoff en route from Tehran to Kiev on Jan. 8.

The leaked audio “proves that the Iranian side knew from the start that our plane had been hit by a missile,” Zelenskiy said in a television interview.

“He says that ‘it seems to me that a missile is flying’, he says it in both Persian and English, everything is fixed there,” Zelenskiy said.

After denying blame for three days, Iran acknowledged shooting the plane down, saying it had done so by mistake while under high alert, hours after it had fired at U.S. targets in retaliation for a U.S. strike that killed an Iranian general.

Iran has said it worked as quickly as possible to determine what happened to the plane. The Iranian commander who first acknowledged the plane had been shot down said he informed the authorities on the day of the crash.

Iran has faced pressure from Ukraine and other countries whose citizens were on board the flight to send evidence abroad for international investigations.

The Iranian official in charge of accident investigations at Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization called it a “strange move” by Ukraine to release the confidential recording.

“This action by the Ukrainians led to us not sharing any more evidence with them,” the official, Hassan Rezaifar said, according to the semi-official Mehr news agency.

In the recording, a pilot for Aseman, an Iranian airline, can be heard radioing the control tower that he has seen what he believes is a missile.

“Is this an active area? There’s lights like a missile. Is there anything?” the pilot says.

“Nothing has been reported to us. What’s the light like?” the controller replies. The pilot says: “It’s the light of a missile.”

The control tower can be heard trying and failing to raise the Ukrainian airliner on the radio. The pilot of the Iranian plane then says he has seen “an explosion. In a very big way, we saw it. I really don’t know what it was.”

Ukraine International Airways said in a statement the recording provided “yet more proof that the UIA airplane was shot down with a missile, and there were no restrictions or warnings from dispatchers of any risk to flights of civilian aircraft in the vicinity of the airport.”

Rezaifar, the Iranian aviation official, said in the Mehr report that the Ukraine investigation team, as well as all other foreigners involved in the investigation, have left Iran.

(Reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh, Natlia Zinets and Pavel Polityuk; Writing by Peter Graff, Editing by William Maclean)