Europeans reject “ultimatums” from Iran as it eases nuclear curbs

FILE PHOTO: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani attends talks in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, Feb. 14 2019. Sergei Chirikov/File Photo

BERLIN (Reuters) – European countries said on Thursday they wanted to preserve Iran’s nuclear deal and rejected “ultimatums” from Tehran after Iran scaled back curbs on its nuclear program and threatened moves that might breach the pact.

Iran announced steps on Wednesday to ease curbs on its nuclear program, in response to new U.S. sanctions imposed after Washington abandoned the deal a year ago.

Tehran’s initial moves do not appear to violate the accord yet, but President Hassan Rouhani said that unless world powers protect Iran’s economy from U.S. sanctions within 60 days, Iran would start enriching uranium beyond permitted limits.

“We reject any ultimatums and we will assess Iran’s compliance on the basis of Iran’s performance regarding its nuclear-related commitments…,” read a statement issued jointly by the European Union and the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany.

“We are determined to continue pursuing efforts to enable the continuation of legitimate trade with Iran,” said the European states, adding that included getting a special purpose vehicle aimed at enabling business with Iran off the ground.

The 2015 nuclear deal requires Iran to curb its nuclear program in return for the elimination of international sanctions. It was signed by the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China.

HARDLINERS

The administration of President Donald Trump abandoned the agreement a year ago and imposed U.S. sanctions, which it has ratchetted up this month, effectively ordering all countries to halt all purchases of Iranian oil or face their own sanctions.

The move creates a dilemma for Washington’s European allies which say they share its concerns about Iranian behavior but think the Trump administration’s tactics are likely to backfire.

The European allies have opposed the U.S. decision to abandon the nuclear deal, which they say plays into the hands of hardliners in Iran and undermines pragmatists within the Iranian leadership who want to open the country up to the world.

French President Emmanuel Macron called on Thursday for the nuclear deal to be extended to cover other issues of concern to the West, such as Iran’s regional policies and missile program, rather than jettisoned.

“Leaving the 2015 nuclear agreement is a mistake because it is undoing what we have already done. That’s why France is remaining and will remain a part of it and I deeply hope that Iran will remain,” Macron said.

“We contributed to negotiating this deal. France at the time had even pushed for it to be more demanding than what the United States was ready to accept. It is a good deal and a good base. It needs to be completed,” he said.

European countries have tried to develop a system to allow outside investors to do business with Iran while avoiding falling foul of U.S. sanctions. But in practice, this has failed so far, with all major European companies that had announced plans to invest in Iran saying they would no longer do so.

Iran has always denied that it was seeking a nuclear weapon.

Tehran says it wants to abide by the nuclear deal. A spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation said on Thursday Tehran’s goal was to bring the agreement “back on track”.

But Tehran has also maintained that it will leave the deal, known as the JCPOA unless it receives more economic support.

“We have not left the JCPOA so far, but we have put such a move on our agenda and that would happen step-by-step,” Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi was quoted as saying by state-run PressTV on Wednesday night.

Supporters of the nuclear deal, including Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama and European allies, say the pact extends the time it would take Iran to make a nuclear weapon if it decided to do so, and guarantees that it would be caught.

Lifting sanctions would show ordinary Iranians the benefits of cooperating with the world and make it harder for hardliners to roll back reforms, they argue.

The Trump administration argues that the nuclear deal was flawed because it is not permanent, does not address Iran’s missile program and does not punish Iran for what Washington considers meddling in regional countries.

France, led by Macron, says those issues would be easier to tackle in a future agreement if the existing deal is kept in place. Iran has always said its missile program and regional policies are sovereign issues and not negotiable.

Trump’s hardline stance is supported by Israel and by Arab allies of the United States such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which consider Iran a foe and gain leverage over global oil prices from having its exports taken off the market.

(Reporting by Madeline Chambers and Bozorgmehr Sharafedin, Writing by Peter Graff, Editing by William Maclean)

Gaza-Israel border falls quiet after 3 days long deadly surge of rocket fire

Rockets are fired from Gaza towards Israel, in Gaza May 5, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Ari Rabinovitch

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A surge in deadly violence in the Gaza Strip and southern Israel petered out overnight with Palestinian officials reporting that Egypt had mediated a ceasefire on Monday ending the most serious spate of cross-border clashes for months.

The latest round of fighting erupted three days ago, peaking on Sunday when rockets and missiles from Gaza killed four civilians in Israel. Israeli strikes killed 21 Palestinians, more than half of them civilians, over the weekend.

Two Palestinian officials and a TV station belonging to Hamas, Gaza’s Islamist rulers, said a truce had been reached at 0430 a.m. (0130 GMT), apparently preventing the violence from broadening into a conflict neither side seemed keen on fighting.

Israel did not formally confirm the existence of a truce with Hamas and its allied Gaza faction Islamic Jihad, militants that it, like much of the West, designates as terrorists.

Officials in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government spoke in more general terms of a reciprocal return to quiet, with one suggesting that Israel’s arch-enemy Iran – a major funder for Islamic Jihad – had been behind the Gaza escalation.

Suffering under renewed U.S. sanctions and Israeli strikes against its military assets in Syria, Iran may have seen stoking Palestinian violence as a way of telling Israel, “we will get back at you through (Islamic) Jihad and Gaza”, Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz told the Israeli radio station 90 FM.

Israel’s military said that more than 600 rockets and other projectiles – over 150 of them intercepted – had been fired at southern Israeli cities and villages since Friday. It said it shelled or carried out air strikes on some 320 militant sites.

The violence abated before dawn, just as Gazans were preparing to begin the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Rocket sirens in southern Israel, which had gone off continuously over the weekend, sending residents running for cover, did not sound on Monday and there were no reports of new air strikes in Gaza.

Egypt and the United Nations, who have served as brokers in the past, had been trying to mediate a ceasefire.

LEVERAGE

The violence began when a sniper from the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad fired across Gaza’s fenced border at Israeli troops on routine patrol, wounding two soldiers, according to the Israeli military.

Islamic Jihad accused Israel of delaying implementation of previous understandings brokered by Egypt in an effort to end violence and ease the economic hardships of blockaded Gaza.

This time both Islamic Jihad and Hamas appeared to see some leverage to press for concessions from Israel, where annual independence day celebrations begin on Wednesday and with the Eurovision song contest due to kick off in Tel Aviv – the target of a Gaza rocket attack in March – next week.

Some 2 million Palestinians live in Gaza, the economy of which has suffered years of Israeli and Egyptian blockades as well as recent foreign aid cuts and sanctions by the Palestinian Authority, Hamas’ West Bank-based rival.

Israel says its blockade is necessary to stop arms reaching Hamas, with which it has fought three wars since the group seized control of Gaza in 2007, two years after Israel withdrew its settlers and troops from the small coastal enclave.

One of Islamic Jihad’s leaders in Gaza said on Sunday that the group was trying to counter efforts by the United States to revive peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East team has said it will unveil its peace plan in June, after Ramadan is over. Peace negotiations have been moribund since 2014.

“What the resistance is doing now is the most important part of confronting Trump’s deal. We all have to get united behind the decision by the resistance to fight,” Islamic Jihad’s Jamil Eleyan said in a statement.

Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus said that over the past few weeks Islamic Jihad had been trying to perpetrate attacks against Israel in order to destabilize the border. “This isn’t some local initiative, it is part of a strategic choice to escalate matters,” Conricus said.

During the eight-year civil war in Syria, Iran’s military has built a presence there backing President Bashar al-Assad.

Israel regards Iran as its biggest threat and has vowed to stop it from entrenching itself in Syria, its neighbor to the north, repeatedly bombing Iranian targets in Syria and those of allied Lebanese Hezbollah militia.

Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton said on Sunday the administration was deploying a carrier strike group and bombers to the Middle East in response to troubling “indications and warnings” from Iran and to show the United States will retaliate with “unrelenting force” to any attack.

(Additional reporting by Dan Williams and Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Turkey says buying Russian defense system should not trigger U.S. sanctions

FILE PHOTO: New S-400 "Triumph" surface-to-air missile system after its deployment at a military base outside the town of Gvardeysk near Kaliningrad, Russia. Picture taken March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Vitaly Nevar/File Photo/File Photo

By Humeyra Pamuk

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Turkey’s purchase of a Russian air defense missile system should not trigger U.S. sanctions because Ankara is not an adversary of Washington and remains committed to the NATO alliance, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said on Monday.

Speaking at a U.S.-Turkey conference in Washington amid rising tensions between the two NATO allies over Ankara’s plan to buy the Russian S-400 missile system, Akar adopted a relatively conciliatory tone and urged to resolve issues via dialogue.

“Turkey is clearly not an adversary of the United States,” Akar said and added that therefore its procurement of the S-400 system should not be considered within the scope of U.S. sanctions designed to target America’s enemies.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last week that Washington had told Ankara it could face retribution for buying the S-400s under a sanctions law known as Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CATSAA).

“This procurement decision does not signify a change in Turkey’s course. I’d like to reiterate strongly that there is no change in Turkey’s commitment to NATO,” Akar said.

FILE PHOTO: A Lockheed Martin F-35 aircraft at the ILA Air Show in Berlin, Germany, April 25, 2018. REUTERS/Axel Schmidt/File Photo/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A Lockheed Martin F-35 aircraft at the ILA Air Show in Berlin, Germany, April 25, 2018. REUTERS/Axel Schmidt/File Photo/File Photo

The disagreement over the F-35 is the latest of a series of diplomatic disputes between the United States and Turkey including Turkish demands that the United States extradite Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, differences over Middle East policy and the war in Syria, and sanctions on Iran.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has refused to back down from Ankara’s planned purchase of a Russian S-400 missile defense system that the United States has said would compromise the security of F-35 aircraft, made by Lockheed Martin Corp . Turkey has said it will take delivery of the S-400s in July.

In early April, the United States halted delivery of equipment related to the stealthy F-35 fighter aircraft to Turkey, marking the first concrete U.S. step to potentially blocking the delivery of the jet to the NATO ally.

Akar said Turkey was puzzled by the move and expected U.S. and other partners in the program to fulfill their obligations.

“We firmly believe that linking the S-400 to the F-35 project is unfortunate … We are one of the investors and partners and not just a buyer. We have invested over $1 billion … and fulfilled all our obligations,” he said.

Akar repeated Turkey’s offer to hold technical talks with the United States to address “technical concerns” over the S-400 purchase.

Turkey is also assessing a renewed offer from the United States to buy Patriot missile defense systems, Akar added.

“Recently we received the restated offer for the Patriots. This offer is now on the table, we are studying it carefully,” he said.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Additional reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun in Istanbul; Editing by Dominic Evans and Phil Berlowitz)

Hezbollah warns U.S. over sanctions against Iran and allies

FILE PHOTO: Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah addresses supporters via a screen in Beirut, Lebanon, September 20, 2018. REUTERS/Aziz Taher/File Photo

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s Hezbollah raised the prospect of retaliation by Iran and its allies over U.S. sanctions, saying on Wednesday that all options were on the table were Washington to take steps that “threaten our nation”.

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the heavily armed Iranian-backed Shi’ite group, said the United States’ move this week to designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization reflected a failure of U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Iran and its allies, which include Hezbollah, had so far made do with condemnation in response to the U.S. sanctions, said Nasrallah, before adding that this was “not a permanent and fixed policy”.

“There are measures which, if taken by the Americans … who said they will remain without response?” he said in a televised speech delivered to an event for Hezbollah’s wounded fighters.

“There will be an appropriate response for sure,” he said. Iran and its allies held “many strong cards”, he added.

Hezbollah was founded by the Revolutionary Guards in 1982 and has long been designated as a terrorist group by the United States. U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has tightened sanctions against Hezbollah as part of its wider regional policy to counter Iran.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday that Trump would continue to increase pressure on Iran.

(Reporting by Beirut bureau; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Oil prices hit 2019 highs on OPEC cuts and U.S. sanctions

FILE PHOTO: Pumpjacks are seen against the setting sun at the Daqing oil field in Heilongjiang province, China December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Stringe

By Dmitry Zhdannikov

LONDON (Reuters) – Oil prices rose to new 2019 highs on Tuesday, supported by OPEC supply cuts and falling output from Iran and Venezuela because of U.S. sanctions.

Brent crude oil futures were up 16 cents at $67.70 a barrel at 1415 GMT, having earlier risen to a 2019 peak of $68.20, their highest since November 2018.

U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) futures were at $59.17, up 8 cents from their last settlement. They also touched their highest since November at $59.57.

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries on Monday scrapped its planned meeting in April, effectively extending supply cuts that have been in place since January until its next regular meeting in June.

OPEC and a group of non-affiliated producers including Russia, known as OPEC+, cut supply in 2019 to halt a sharp price drop that began in the second-half of 2018 on booming U.S. production and fears of a global economic slowdown.

Saudi Arabia has signaled that OPEC and its allies could continue to restrain oil output until the end of 2019.

“The OPEC+ deal has brought stability to crude prices and signs of an extension have taken crude higher,” said Alfonso Esparza, senior market analyst at futures brokerage OANDA.

Prices have been further supported by U.S. sanctions against oil exports from Iran and Venezuela, traders said.

Venezuela has suspended its oil exports to India, one of its key export destinations, the Azeri energy ministry said on Tuesday, citing Venezuela’s oil minister.

Because of the tighter supply outlook for the coming months, the Brent forward curve has gone into backwardation since the start of the year, meaning that prices for immediate delivery are more expensive than those for dispatch in the future. May Brent prices were around $1.20 a barrel more expensive than for December delivery.

(GRAPHIC: Brent crude oil forward curves – https://tmsnrt.rs/2FlM7YZ)

Outside OPEC, analysts are watching U.S. crude oil production that has risen by more than 2 million barrels per day (bpd) since early 2018, to about 12 million bpd, making the United States the world’s biggest producer ahead of Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Weekly output and storage data will be published by the Energy Information Administration (EIA) on Wednesday.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch said that economic “risks are skewed to the downside” and it is forecasting global demand growth of 1.2 million bpd year on year in 2019 and 1.15 million bpd in 2020.

The bank said it expects Brent and WTI to average $70 and $59 a barrel respectively in 2019 and $65 and $60 a barrel in 2020.

(Reporting by Henning Gloystein; Editing Joseph Radford and David Goodman)

As Maduro holds on, Venezuela opposition eyes negotiated transition

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro attends a rally in support of his government and to commemorate the 61st anniversary of the end of the dictatorship of Marcos Perez Jimenez next to his wife Cilia Flores in Caracas, Venezuela January 23, 2019. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

By Brian Ellsworth and Sarah Marsh

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s opposition is trying to convince ruling Socialist Party officials to join a transition government, shifting focus as it seeks to unseat President Nicolas Maduro, who has clung to power in the face of growing international pressure and U.S. sanctions.

Last month, Venezuelan opposition leader and Congress chief Juan Guaido invoked the constitution to assume the interim presidency after declaring Maduro’s reelection in May 2018 illegitimate. He swiftly received recognition from the United States and Latin American powers.

In an effort to secure the backing of Venezuela’s military, Guaido proposed an amnesty for officers who turn on Maduro’s government.

But defections have been minimal and top brass has declared allegiance to Maduro, dimming hopes of a quick end to an economic disaster that has prompted millions of desperate Venezuelans to flee abroad, fueling a regional humanitarian crisis.

Amid fears the changes have stalled, opposition leaders have begun to talk in the past week about bringing ruling Socialist Party stalwarts into a potential transition government.

“This transition requires a large national agreement between the country’s political forces,” Edgar Zambrano, vice president of the opposition-run National Assembly, said in an interview.

Zambrano said any transition must include “Chavismo,” the left-wing movement founded by Venezuela’s late leader Hugo Chavez, who hand-picked Maduro as his successor.

People attend a protest of the public transport sector against the government of Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela February 20, 2019. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

People attend a protest of the public transport sector against the government of Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela February 20, 2019. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

“You cannot disappear Chavismo and you cannot go from persecuted to persecutor. This is not political revenge,” he said.

It was not immediately clear how actively the opposition is building bridges. Opposition leaders say they maintain contact with government officials and military officers but keep such talks confidential to avoid affecting those involved.

Maduro says he is the victim of a U.S.-orchestrated coup attempt and has refused to resign.

Many rank-and-file opposition supporters hope to see Maduro and his allies exiled or behind bars, and would be frustrated by attempts to bring them into the transition.

Guaido’s decision to assume the interim presidency revitalized Venezuela’s fragmented and disillusioned opposition and led to a flurry of street protests.

Hopes of quick change were fueled by diplomatic support from numerous countries and tough U.S. sanctions on Venezuela’s vital oil industry, which has bankrolled Maduro’s government.

Some in the opposition quietly predicted a military pronouncement in favor of Guaido as early as Jan. 23, the day he proclaimed himself president at a rally in Caracas. Top military officials were silent for hours after Guaido’s pronouncement, leading to speculation that Maduro was frantically negotiating with officers not to switch sides.

Yet only a handful of active officers backed Guaido. Expectations of a quick military proclamation have given way to concerns over a slow and complicated path forward, both in Caracas and Washington.

“I don’t think (Washington) understood the complexities of the target, of Venezuela: all the overlapping security that Maduro has available; the things at his disposal,” said one former U.S. administration official in touch with current officials.

WHAT ABOUT JUSTICE?

The idea of a unity in Venezuela was in fact included in a little-noticed provision of a Transition Law passed by the National Assembly last month.

Venezuela’s four main opposition parties all back the idea, but in the past week have increasingly discussed the issue.

“People must understand that Chavismo is not just Maduro,” legislator Stalin Gonzalez said in an interview with Reuters last week, in comments that sparked a backlash on social media.

Some opposition supporters say they would be open to middle-ranking or dissident socialists being included in an interim government, but not the top brass.

“They must pay for what they have done,” said Maria Elena Fonseca, who at age 78 struggles to make ends meet despite working as a psychologist. Like countless Venezuelans, Fonseca has seen her income eroded by hyperinflation that now tops 2 million percent annually.

Fonseca receives remittance from her daughter abroad, who is among the estimated 3 million Venezuelans who have fled the once-prosperous nation since 2015.

“It’s not about revenge: it’s about justice,” she said.

STALLING MOMENTUM?

Back channels between the two sides are considerably better developed than might be expected from 20 years of acrimonious politics and the constant slew of vitriolic social media commentary.

Gonzalez and other young legislators developed relationships with Socialist Party politicians in 2016. The two sides coexisted in the legislature until Maduro backed the creation in 2017 of an all-powerful, government-controlled Constitution Assembly with the aim of sidelining Congress.

Guaido’s team is wielding a stick as well as a carrot. It has held massive protests nationwide over the past month and will face off with authorities when it attempts to bring humanitarian aid into the country on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Washington’s crippling sanctions on the oil sector are expected to take effect in the coming weeks, cutting off funding to Maduro.

The risk, however, is that a standoff will drag on for months, disillusioning opposition supporters while allowing Maduro to blame an escalating economic crisis on the U.S. sanctions.

“The longer times passes and the opposition doesn’t pose a legitimate threat to Maduro, the more confident he will get,” said Raul Gallegos, an analyst with the consultancy Control Risks. He noted that Cuba, Zimbabwe and Iran all resisted international opprobrium and sanctions for decades.

“Chavistas are willing to drive this country into a level of despondency and reduce the economy to a level Venezuela hasn’t seen in decades as long as they can remain in power,” he said.

(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth and Sarah Marsh; Additional reporting by Luc Cohen and Matt Spetalnick in Washington’; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Leslie Adler)

Pence, at summit, lashes out at Europeans over Iran

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands as they meet in Warsaw, Poland, February 14, 2019. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

By Lesley Wroughton and Alan Charlish

WARSAW (Reuters) – U.S. Vice President Mike Pence accused leading European countries on Thursday of trying to break U.S. sanctions against Tehran, in remarks at a Middle East peace summit that were likely to further strain transatlantic relations.

Pence spoke at the conference in Warsaw attended by 60 countries, including Israel and six Gulf Arab states, but not the Palestinians or Iran.

European powers, who oppose the Trump administration’s decision to pull out of a nuclear deal with Iran, were openly skeptical of a conference excluding Tehran. France and Germany declined to send their top diplomats, while British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt left before Thursday’s main events.

“Sadly, some of our leading European partners have not been nearly as cooperative,” Pence said. “In fact, they have led the effort to create mechanisms to break up our sanctions.”

Trump pulled the United States last year out of the 2015 Iran deal, under which Tehran agreed to curbs on its nuclear program in return for the lifting of sanctions.

European countries say the move was a mistake and have promised to try to salvage the deal as long as Iran continues to abide by it. In practice, European companies have accepted new U.S. sanctions on Iran and abandoned plans to invest there.

Pence said a European scheme to trade with Iran, known as the Special Purpose Vehicle, was “an effort to break American sanctions against Iran’s murderous revolutionary regime”.

“It is an ill-advised step that will only strengthen Iran, weaken the EU and create still more distance between Europe and the United States,” he said.

The European trade vehicle was conceived as a way to help match Iranian oil and gas exports against purchases of EU goods. However, those ambitions have been scaled back, with diplomats saying that, realistically, it will be used only for trade, for example of humanitarian products or food, allowed by Washington.

The summit venue in Poland could itself be seen as a rebuke to Washington’s traditional Western European allies, who are at odds with a nationalist government in Warsaw over moves the EU says curb judicial independence and free speech.

The summit was notable because of the presence of Israel alongside wealthy Arab states. Washington aims to narrow differences between its Israeli and Arab allies to isolate Iran.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who met with Omani Foreign Minister Yousuf bin Alawi bin Abdullahon on the sidelines on Wednesday, called the conference a “historical turning point” in combating the threat from Iran.

“DESPERATE CIRCUS”

But just as notable were the absences, not only of Iran itself — which called the meeting a “desperate circus” — but of the Palestinians, who refused to attend over what they regard as U.S. bias against them under Trump. They have been boycotting the administration since Trump reversed decades of U.S. policy in 2017 to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Chief Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erekat took aim at the Arab states for attending, citing an Arab meeting last year that reaffirmed demands that Israel first withdraw from Palestinian land before it can normalize ties with Arab countries.

“Reward the occupation, the decision to abolish the Arab Peace Initiative and the decisions of the Dhahran Summit. For what? Mediation between America and Israel on the one hand and Iran on the other,” Erekat tweeted.

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said the only path to peace was by negotiating with the Palestinian leadership represented by Abbas.

European allies were concerned that the conference would turn into an Iran-bashing session, which would only increase tensions with the Tehran.

“We strongly disagree… We want to push Iran to good results and don’t want to push Iran outside of its nuclear commitment,” a diplomat from a major European power said after Pence’s speech.

Niels Annen, Germany’s minister of state, expressed skepticism over the likely outcome.

“I am hoping for constructive signals but nobody here has the expectation that this conference will solve problems,” he told reporters on the sidelines of the meeting. “That would be unrealistic because we need a political agreement with all participants at the end of the day.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for an era of cooperation at opening remarks that were broadcast publicly. The rest of the meeting, including a presentation by White House advisor and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner on plans for Israeli-Palestinian peace, was held behind closed is doors.

Kushner and Trump’s Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt are trying to broker a peace plan to cover all core issues of the decades-old conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, U.S. official say. Release of the plan has been delayed by Palestinian anger at Trump’s change of U.S. policy on Jerusalem.

(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, Alicja Ptak, Marcin Goclowski and Marcel Kolling; Editing by Justyna Pawlak, Mark Heinrich and Peter Graff)

Rouhani: Iran to continue expanding military might, missile work – TV

FILE PHOTO: Iran's President Hassan Rouhani exits following a news conference on the sidelines of the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 26, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan Mcdermid/File Photo

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Monday that Iran was determined to expand its military power and ballistic missile program despite mounting pressure from hostile countries to curb Iran’s defensive work, state TV reported.

“We have not asked and will not ask for permission to develop different types of … missiles and will continue our path and our military power,” Rouhani said in a speech at Tehran’s Azadi (Freedom) square, where tens of thousands gathered to mark the 40th anniversary of Iran’s Islamic revolution.

Rouhani also vowed Iran would defeat U.S. sanctions, reimposed after President Donald Trump withdrew from Tehran’s nuclear accord with world powers last year.

“The Iranian people have and will have some economic difficulties (due to the sanctions) but we will overcome the problems by helping each other,” Rouhani said.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Additional reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafeddin; Editing by Alison Williams, Editing by William Maclean)

Kim says ready to meet Trump ‘anytime,’ warns of ‘new path’

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un poses for photos in Pyongyang in this January 1, 2019 photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). KCNA/via REUTERS.

By Hyonhee Shin and Soyoung Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said on Tuesday he is ready to meet U.S. President Donald Trump again anytime to achieve their common goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, but warned he may have to take an alternative path if U.S. sanctions and pressure against the country continued.

In a nationally televised New Year address, Kim said denuclearization was his “firm will” and North Korea had “declared at home and abroad that we would neither make and test nuclear weapons any longer nor use and proliferate them.”

Kim added that Pyongyang had “taken various practical measures” and if Washington responded “with trustworthy measures and corresponding practical actions … bilateral relations will develop wonderfully at a fast pace.”

“I am always ready to sit together with the U.S. president anytime in the future, and will work hard to produce results welcomed by the international community without fail,” Kim said.

However, he warned that North Korea might be “compelled to explore a new path” to defend its sovereignty if the United States “seeks to force something upon us unilaterally … and remains unchanged in its sanctions and pressure.”

It was not clear what Kim meant by “a new path,” but his comments are likely to further fuel skepticism over whether North Korea intends to give up a nuclear weapons program that it has long considered essential to its security.

In response to the news, Trump wrote on Twitter, “I also look forward to meeting with Chairman Kim who realizes so well that North Korea possesses great economic potential!”

There was no immediate comment from the White House. Asked for a reaction, a U.S. State Department official said: “We decline the opportunity to comment.”

South Korea’s presidential office, however, welcomed Kim’s speech, saying it carried his “firm will” to advance relations with Seoul and Washington.

Kim and Trump vowed to work toward denuclearization and build “lasting and stable” peace at their landmark summit in Singapore in June, but little progress has been made since.

Trump has said a second summit with Kim is likely in January or February, though he wrote on Twitter last month that he was “in no hurry.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made several trips to Pyongyang last year but the two sides have yet to reschedule a meeting between him and senior North Korean official Kim Yong Chol after an abrupt cancellation in November.

Pyongyang has demanded Washington lift sanctions and declare an official end to the 1950-1953 Korean War in response to its initial, unilateral steps toward denuclearization, including dismantling its only known nuclear testing site and a key missile engine facility.

SANCTIONS

U.S. officials have said the extent of initial North Korean steps were not confirmed and could be easily reversed. Washington has halted some large-scale military exercises with Seoul to aid negotiations but has called for strict global sanctions enforcement on impoverished North Korea until its full, verifiable denuclearization.

Kim’s reference to pledges not to make nuclear weapons could indicate a first moratorium on such weapons production, although it was not clear if this was conditional. While Pyongyang conducted no nuclear or missile tests last year, satellite images have pointed to continued activity at related facilities.

The U.S. special representative for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, reiterated last month that Washington had no intention of easing sanctions but had agreed to help South Korea send flu medication to North Korea, saying such cooperation could help advance nuclear diplomacy.

Analysts said Kim’s message sent clear signals that North Korea was willing to stay in talks with Washington and Seoul this year – but on its own terms.

“North Korea seems determined in 2019 to receive some sort of sanctions relief … The challenge, however, is will Team Trump be willing to back away from its position of zero sanctions relief?” said Harry Kazianis of the Washington-based Centre for the National Interest.

“Kim’s remarks seem to suggest his patience with America is wearing thin.”

After racing toward the goal of developing a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the United States in 2017, Kim used last year’s New Year speech to warn that “a nuclear button is always on the desk of my office” and order mass production of nuclear bombs and ballistic missiles.

But he also offered to send a delegation to the 2018 Winter Olympics in the South in February, setting off a flurry of diplomacy that included three summits with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and the meeting with Trump in June.

This year, Kim said inter-Korean relations had entered a “completely new phase,” and offered to resume key inter-Korean economic projects banned under international and South Korean sanctions, without conditions.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin, Soyoung Kim and Hyunyoung Yi; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom and David Shepardson in Washington; Editing by Stephen Coates and Paul Simao)

Under the radar: Iran’s oil exports harder to track as sanctions loom

FILE PHOTO: gas flare on an oil production platform in the Soroush oil fields is seen alongside an Iranian flag in the Gulf July 25, 2005. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi/File Photo

By Alex Lawler and Ahmad Ghaddar

LONDON (Reuters) – According to Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih, no one has any idea how much oil Iran will be able to export after new U.S. sanctions against the Islamic Republic kick in on Nov. 4.

But more precisely, Iran’s shipment figures – crucial to oil markets – are already a mystery.

Iran’s oil exports are becoming harder to measure as ships switch off tracking systems, oil industry sources say, adding uncertainty over how far U.S. sanctions are scaring off buyers. The prospect of more oil heading into storage could make number-crunching even tougher.

Amid pressure from U.S. President Donald Trump to cool the price of oil, the lack of export clarity adds to the challenge for other OPEC members, chiefly top crude supplier Saudi Arabia, to make up for falling Iranian shipments.

Iran is the third-largest producer in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and estimates of its crude exports in October vary by more than 1 million barrels per day (bpd). That amount is enough to cover the oil demand of Turkey and move prices in the 100-million-bpd world market.

Before Trump’s May announcement of the sanctions, Iranian exports were above 2.5 million bpd.

Falih acknowledged the challenge in an interview with Russia’s TASS news agency published on Oct. 22. “Nobody has a clue what Iranian exports will be,” he said.

An Iranian oil official, asked how much crude Iran was exporting in October, declined to comment.

Oil prices have extended a rally on expectations the sanctions will test OPEC and other producers. Brent crude on Oct. 3 reached $86.74 a barrel, the highest since 2014, although it has since eased to $77.

While the Saudi minister may have been referring to what happens after sanctions kick in, the range of estimates of how much Iran is exporting now is already widening.

“A large set of numbers estimating Iranian October first-half exports have been thrown to the market these last few days, ranging for 1 million bpd to 2.2 million bpd, which is a massive spread,” Kpler, a data intelligence company, said.

According to Refinitiv Eikon data, Iran exported 1.55 million bpd in the first three weeks of October, higher than the 1.33 million bpd seen in the first two weeks of the month.

Kpler put Iranian exports at 1.85 million bpd in the first 24 days of October.

An industry source who also tracks the exports estimated a similar volume of 1.8 million bpd in the first half of October, including vessels not showing on satellite tracking. A second source initially agreed and later trimmed his figure to 1.65 million bpd through Oct. 22.

“It’s pretty high, I have to admit,” this source said of estimated exports in the first two weeks of the month. “It’s possible that there is a drop-off since.”

SIGNAL SWITCHED OFF

At any time, adjustments to tanker schedules and week-by-week variation complicate the task. While easier than in the past due to satellite information, the tracking of tankers is still both art and science.

Another element may be making this harder, industry sources say.

Tankers loading Iranian crude sometimes switch off their AIS signal, an automatic tracking system used on ships, only to switch it back on at a later stage of their journey, according to oil industry sources.

This could create a problem for ship-tracking services trying to pinpoint the exact date, or even the exact hour, on which a tanker loaded its crude cargo.

Neither Iran’s National Iranian Oil Co nor National Iranian Tanker Co responded to an emailed request for comment.

“Concretely, we are able to confirm loadings of vessels having shut down AIS transponders by other means such as satellite imagery or by tracking Iranian-flagged tugs, which has proven especially valuable given the lack of AIS coverage throughout much of the Gulf,” Kpler said.

Iran was believed by oil trading and shipping sources in 2012 to be hiding the destination of its oil sales by strategically switching off vessels’ tracking systems.

Attempts by Reuters to seek official Iranian comment on that development, both in 2012 and for this article, received no response.

Iran insists it will keep exporting oil and says the U.S. sanctions will ensure the market remains volatile.

“Iranian oil exports cannot be stopped,” Tasnim news agency quoted Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh as saying on Oct. 23.

Iranian Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri said on Sunday: “Despite sanctions, Iran’s oil exports will not fall below a million barrels a day.”

OIL INTO ASIAN STORAGE?

As the number of buyers dwindles, a large volume of Iranian crude is set to arrive at China’s northeast Dalian port this month and in early November.

China intends to cut purchases in November. But Iran is undeterred, planning to send buyers such as India and China oil for storage rather than consumption, making it harder to measure how much oil is reaching the market, sources say.

Analysts, in assessing a producer’s supply of oil to the market, generally do not take into account crude moved into storage.

“We will give them oil even for our inventory there,” a source familiar with Iranian thinking said, referring to India. “The same we will do for China.”

The data seen to date suggests Iranian crude exports in October are still down from at least 2.5 million bpd in April, before Trump in May withdrew the United States from a nuclear deal with Iran and reimposed sanctions.

Exports dropped below 1.2 million bpd under previous sanctions that were lifted following that 2015 nuclear agreement.

While Washington has said it wants to cut Iran’s oil exports to zero, Iran and Saudi Arabia say that is unlikely. The Trump administration is considering waivers on sanctions for countries that are reducing their imports.

Iran says waivers will be granted allowing shipments to continue at a lower level, as it contends that Saudi Arabia and other producers cannot fully replace Iran’s crude exports.

“Waivers are expected, as Saudi Arabia and Russia cannot do it,” the source familiar with Iranian thinking said.

(Additional reporting by Rania El Gamal; editing by Dmitry Zhdannikov and Dale Hudson)