Iran develops advanced machines to speed up enrichment: official

Iran develops advanced machines to speed up enrichment: official
By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran said on Monday it would take another step away from the 2015 nuclear deal by developing centrifuges to speed up its uranium enrichment, its nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi said.

“Today, we are witnessing the launch of the array of 30 IR-6 centrifuges,” Salehi, who heads Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, told state television. “Iran now is operating 60 IR-6 advanced centrifuges. It shows our capacity and determination.”

Under the agreement between Iran and world powers, Tehran is only allowed to enrich uranium with just over 5,000 of its first-generation IR-1 centrifuges. An IR-6 centrifuge can enrich uranium 10 times faster than the IR-1s.

“Our scientists are working on a prototype called the IR-9, that works 50 times faster than the IR-1s,” Salehi said.

The deal was aimed at extending the time Iran would need to obtain enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb, if it sought one – something sometimes referred to as “breakout time” to about a year from 2-3 months. Iran denies ever having sought to build a nuclear bomb.

The U.N. nuclear watchdog said in September that Iran had informed the agency about making modifications to accommodate cascades – or interconnected clusters – of 164 of the IR-2m and IR-4 centrifuge. Cascades of the same size and type were scrapped under the deal.

Tensions have risen between Tehran and Washington since last year when U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the accord under which Iran had agreed to rein in its nuclear program in exchange for relief from economic sanctions.

The United States has since renewed and intensified its sanctions, slashing Iran’s crude oil sales by more than 80%.

Responding to Washington’s “maximum pressure”, Iran has breached the restrictions of the deal step-by-step and has rejected the United States’ demand that a far-reaching deal should be negotiated.

Tehran, however, has left room for diplomacy by saying that talks are possible if Washington lifts all the sanctions and returns to the nuclear deal.

Iran has said it might take further steps in November if European parties to the pact fail to shield its economy from U.S. penalties.

While steps taken by Iran so far do not make a big difference to that breakout time for now, it further complicates the prospects of saving the accord by the European parties to the deal, who have criticized Trump for exiting it.

(Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris; Writing by Parisa Hafezi, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Rouhani says Iran resists sanctions, drives U.S. “desperate”

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Monday new U.S. sanctions blacklisting Iran’s central bank for a second time pointed to U.S. “desperation” in the face of Iranian resistance.

President Donald Trump last year quit a 2015 nuclear pact between Iran and six world powers, reimposing and then tightening sanctions that had been lifted under the deal in return for Iran curbing its nuclear program.

The United States on Friday imposed further sanctions, including on Iran’s central bank which was already blacklisted, following Sept. 14 attacks on Saudi oil facilities that Riyadh and Washington have blamed on Iran.

“Americans are sanctioning institutions that have already been blacklisted. This signals America’s complete desperation and shows that it’s “maximum pressure” has failed … as the great Iranian nation has resisted successfully,” Rouhani said in remarks carried by state television.

Tehran has flatly denied any involvement in the attacks which was claimed by Yemen’s Houthi movement, an Iran-aligned group fighting a Saudi-led alliance in Yemen’s civil war.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Monday Britain believes it is very likely Iran was behind the Sept 14 attacks. He said London will work with the United States and European allies to reduce tensions in the Gulf.

“If Iran was behind this attacks, nothing would be left of this refinery,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told reporters in New York.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Sunday the United States aimed to avoid war with Iran and the additional troops ordered to be deployed in the Gulf region were for “deterrence and defense”.

“As a diplomat both secretary Pompeo and I should try to avoid war, not to wage war,” said Zarif.

Iran has threatened a crushing response to any military strike following the Sept 14 attacks, though it said the Islamic Republic had no desire for conflict in the Gulf region.

“The region has become intense … They make propaganda about damage (in Saudi ) which can be repaired in two weeks … because America wants to conquer the region,” Rouhani said.

The president said he would introduce a regional peace plan dubbed HOPE (Hormuz Peace Endeavour) at the United Nations General Assembly this week.

“All countries of the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz and the United Nations are invited to join,” Rouhani said before leaving for New York to attend the annual gathering of world leaders at the United Nations.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom and Michelle Nichols in New York; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Angus MacSwan, William Maclean)

Netanyahu opposes Iran talks after Trump moots meeting Rouhani

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a state memorial ceremony at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a shrine holy to Jews and Muslims, in Hebron in the Israeli-occupied West Bank September 4, 2019. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

LONDON (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged world powers on Thursday not to open a dialogue with Iran, after U.S. President Donald Trump said he may meet his Iranian counterpart to resolve a crisis over Tehran’s nuclear project and sanctions against it.

“This is not the time to hold talks with Iran. This is the time to increase the pressure on Iran,” Netanyahu told reporters en route to London, where he was hosted by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and was later scheduled to confer with U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

Netanyahu’s comments marked rare public discord between the right-wing Israeli leader and Trump on the Iranian nuclear issue. Netanyahu had previously counseled France against its own outreach to Iran.

The Israeli leader, who is fighting for his political life in an election on Sept. 17, regularly touts his influence with Western leaders, especially fellow rightwingers such as Trump and Johnson, as vital for Israeli security. His opponents say his closeness to rightwing figures abroad hurts Israel by making support for it a partisan issue in friendly countries.

On Wednesday, Trump left the door open to a possible meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the upcoming U.N. General Assembly in New York, saying: “Anything’s possible. They would like to be able to solve their problem.”

Tehran has rejected any negotiations with Washington unless Trump drops sanctions he imposed after quitting the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, an agreement Netanyahu had savaged as inadequate.

Iran has said that, starting on Friday, it would begin developing centrifuges to speed up the enrichment of uranium, which can produce fuel for power plants or for atomic bombs. The Iranians deny seeking nuclear weapons.

The centrifuge move would be Iran’s latest reduction of its commitments to restrict nuclear projects under the 2015 deal.

Netanyahu called this “another violation, another provocation by Iran, this time in the realm of its quest for nuclear weaponry”.

Meeting Johnson at 10 Downing Street, Netanyahu praised the politically embattled British leader for his “staunch stance against anti-Semitism and … support for Israel’s security”.

“We have the challenge of Iran’s aggression and terrorism, and I’d like to talk to you about how we can work together to counter these things for the benefit of peace,” Netanyahu told Johnson, according to an official Israeli transcript.

Like other European partners to the Iran nuclear deal, Britain was worried by the U.S. withdrawal. Johnson, while openly sympathetic to Israel, wants to preserve a vision of Palestinian statehood that has eroded under Netanyahu’s tenure.

Netanyahu – who has doubled as defense minister for the past 10 months, a period of stepped-up Israeli operations against Iranian targets in the region – brought his air force chief and top military mission planner for the London meeting with Esper.

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz told Ynet TV that Netanyahu and Esper would discuss “everything that happens in the space between Syria, Lebanon, Iraq,” an allusion to the often clandestine Israeli military campaign.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller, Toby Chopra and Peter Graff)

Pakistan releases captured Indian pilot as confrontation cools

People celebrate before the release of Indian Air Force pilot, who was captured by Pakistan on Wednesday, in a street in Ahmedabad, India, March 1, 2019. REUTERS/Amit Dave

By Krishna N. Das and Abu Arqam Naqash

WAGAH, India/MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan (Reuters) – Pakistan handed a captured Indian pilot back to his country on Friday as the nuclear-armed neighbors scaled back their confrontation, at least temporarily.

Television footage showed Wing Commander Abhinandan walking across the border near the town of Wagah just before 9.00 p.m. (1600 GMT). Indian officials confirmed he had been returned and said he would be taken for medical checks.

Abhinandan was shot down on Wednesday while flying a MiG-21 fighter jet that crashed in Pakistani territory after a dogfight with a Pakistani JF-17.

World powers have urged restraint from the two nations, as tensions escalated following a suicide car bombing that killed at least 40 Indian paramilitary police in Indian-controlled Kashmir on Feb. 14.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said earlier on Friday the pilot would be released “as a gesture of peace and to de-escalate matters”.

Before the pilot was released, Pakistani television stations broadcast video of him, looking cleaned up, thanking the Pakistani army for treating him well.

“The Pakistani army is a very professional service,” he said.

Throughout the day, crowds on the Indian side thronged the road to the crossing, shouting nationalist slogans and waving Indian flags.

“Pakistan is releasing our pilot, I thank them for that,” said Kulwant Singh, who has run a food stall at the crossing for 20 years.

“War can never be good. War is bad for business, war is bad for our soldiers.”

The disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir has been at the root of two of the three wars fought between India and Pakistan since they gained independence from Britain in 1947.

There was some firing along the contested border dividing Kashmir on Friday, according to a spokesman for India’s defense ministry, but the hostilities were well short of previous days.

Pakistan reopened some airports on Friday, after easing airspace restrictions that had disrupted flights between Asia and Europe for several days during the conflict.

Relations between the two countries, however, remain strained.

Qureshi said he would not attend a meeting of foreign ministers from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in Abu Dhabi this weekend, because his Indian counterpart had been invited to the event.

India also faces an ongoing battle against armed militants in its portion of Kashmir. On Friday, four security personnel and a civilian were killed in a gun battle with militants, officials said.

(Reporting by Alasdair Pal, James Mackenzie, Krishna Das, Asif Shahzad, Saad Sayeed, Abu Arqam Naqash, Fayaz Bukhari, Shilpa Jamkhandikar and Devjyot Ghoshal; Editing by Frances Kerry)

India, Pakistan claim to down each other’s jets as Kashmir conflict heats up

India's Border Security Force (BSF) soldiers patrol along the fenced border with Pakistan in Ranbir Singh Pura sector near Jammu February 26, 2019. REUTERS/Mukesh Gupta

By James Mackenzie and Alasdair Pal

ISLAMABAD/NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India and Pakistan both said they shot down each other’s fighter jets on Wednesday, with Pakistan capturing an Indian pilot a day after Indian warplanes struck inside Pakistan for the first time since a 1971 war, prompting world powers to urge restraint.

Both countries have ordered air strikes over the last two days, the first time in history that two nuclear-armed powers have done so, while ground forces have exchanged fire in more than a dozen locations.

Tension has been running high since a suicide car bombing by Pakistan-based militants in Indian-controlled Kashmir killed at least 40 Indian paramilitary police on Feb. 14, but the risk of conflict rose dramatically on Tuesday when India launched an air strike on what it said was a militant training base.

A senior Indian government source said that 300 militants were killed in Tuesday’s strike. Pakistan says no one was killed.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan called for talks with India and hoped “better sense” would prevail so that both sides could de-escalate.

“History tells us that wars are full of miscalculation. My question is that, given the weapons we have, can we afford miscalculation,” Khan said during a brief televised broadcast to the nation. “We should sit down and talk.”

The Pakistan government’s official Twitter account released a video of what it claimed was an Indian pilot who had been shot down.

The man, whom Pakistan has named as Wing Commander Abhi Nandan, whose face is bloodied and blindfolded, gives his name and service number, before telling a man questioning him: “I’m sorry sir, that’s all I’m supposed to tell you.”

A statement from India’s foreign ministry said the pilot’s treatment was a “vulgar display of an injured personnel of the Indian Air Force in violation of all norms of international humanitarian law and the Geneva Convention”, ordering his immediate release. India has not yet named the pilot.

In a second video circulating on social media, a screenshot of which was shared by the same Pakistan government account, the pilot was seen sipping tea while praising his treatment by the Pakistani military.

Reuters could not independently verify the second video’s authenticity.

POLITICAL PRESSURE

Pakistan and India have fought three wars since independence from British colonial rule in 1947, two over the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, and went to the brink a fourth in 2002 after a Pakistani militant attack on India’s parliament.

The latest escalation marks a sudden turnaround in relations between the two countries, that both claim Kashmir in full but rule in part. As recently as November, Pakistan’s Khan spoke of “mending ties” with India.

The conflict also comes at a critical time for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who faces a general election in a matter of months.

Modi’s decision to order air strikes could benefit him politically, according to analysts and pollsters, but he was accused on Wednesday by opposition parties of capitalizing on conflict.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi criticized the “blatant politicization of the sacrifices made by our armed forces”, in a joint statement by 21 opposition parties, the first time they have broken ranks with the government over the issue.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke separately with the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan and urged them to avoid “further military activity” following Tuesday’s air strike.

“I expressed to both ministers that we encourage India and Pakistan to exercise restraint, and avoid escalation at any cost,” Pompeo said in a statement on Wednesday.

“I also encouraged both ministers to prioritize direct communication and avoid further military activity,” he said.

Both China and the European Union have also called for restraint.

AERIAL BATTLE

Many of the facts in the latest series of engagements are disputed by the two sides.

Major General Asif Ghafoor, spokesman for the Pakistan armed forces, said two Indian jets had been shot down after they entered Pakistani airspace while responding to a Pakistani aerial mission on targets in Indian-controlled Kashmir.

    One of the jets crashed on the Indian-controlled side of the de facto border in Kashmir, known as the Line of Control, and the other on the Pakistani side.

    Ghafoor said the Pakistani aircraft had carried out the strikes in response to India’s air strike the day before but had taken deliberate action to ensure no casualties were caused.

    The Pakistani jets had locked on to six targets, in a demonstration of their capacity to hit strategic installations, but deliberately fired into open spaces where there would be no casualties.

“This was not a retaliation in a true sense, but to tell Pakistan has capability, we can do it, but we want to be responsible, we don’t want an escalation, we don’t want a war,” Ghafoor told a news conference.

One of the aircraft fell on India’s side of Kashmir, while the second came down in Pakistani-held territory with two pilots captured, he added.

Raveesh Kumar, a spokesman for India’s foreign ministry, gave a different account, telling a news briefing that the Pakistan air strikes on military targets had been “foiled”.

India shot down one Pakistani plane that landed in Pakistani territory, and that it had lost one of its own planes, not two, with the pilot “missing in action”, Kumar added.

“Pakistan has claimed that he is in their custody. We are ascertaining the facts,” Kumar said.

Pakistan denies it lost a plane in the encounter.

At the Pakistani briefing, Ghafoor produced photographs of weapons and identity documents he said were carried by Indian pilots.

Pakistan initially said that two Indian pilots had been captured, before clarifying it only had one in its custody.

The Indian air force has ordered Kashmir’s main airport in Srinagar along with at least three others in neighboring states to close, an official said.

Pakistan shut its airspace, with commercial flights in the country canceled. Flights from the Middle East and India were also affected.

In a separate incident, police officials in Indian-occupied Kashmir said that four passengers and a civilian had died after an Indian aircraft crashed in Kashmir. The craft was initially reported by officials to be a plane, but a partial tail number from the craft seen by a Reuters witness showed it to be an Mi17 military helicopter.

The cause of the crash was unknown.

CIVILIAN FRIGHT

The aerial engagement followed overnight artillery fire by both sides. Pakistan used heavy caliber weapons in 12 to 15 places along the Line of Control, a spokesman for the Indian defense forces said on Wednesday.

“The Indian Army retaliated for effect and our focused fire resulted in severe destruction to five posts and number of casualties,” the spokesman said.

Five Indian soldiers suffered minor wounds in the shelling that ended on Wednesday morning, he added.

“So far there are no (civilian) casualties but there is panic among people,” said Rahul Yadav, the deputy commissioner of the Poonch district on the Indian side where some of the shelling took place.

“We have an evacuation plan in place and if need arises we will evacuate people to safer areas,” he said.

Officials on the Pakistani side said at least four people had been killed and seven wounded, including civilians, with thousands evacuated and schools closed in border areas.

“Only those families are still here which have concrete bunkers built within or along their homes,” said Muhammad Din, a resident of Chakothi, a village in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir near the de facto border.

India has also continued its crackdown on suspected militants operating in Kashmir, and on Wednesday security forces killed two Jaish militants in a gun battle, Indian police said.

Syed Maqsood, the superintendent of a government hospital in Indian-occupied Kashmir, said that all hospitals in the region had been asked to paint a red cross on their roofs in case of further Pakistani air strikes.

(Reporting by James Mackenzie and Alasdair Pal; Additional reporting by Fayaz Bukhari, Devjyot Ghoshal, Aditi Shah, Aditya Kalra, Drazen Jorgic, Rupam Jain, Abu Arqam Naqash, Eric Beech and Praveen Menon; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani, Simon Cameron-Moore and Nick Macfie)

Iran says will not halt aerospace program despite U.S. warning

FILE PHOTO: Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attends India-Iran business forum in New Delhi, India, January 8, 2019. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Iran will continue with its aerospace program despite U.S. warnings, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Wednesday, adding there was no international law prohibiting such a program.

Zarif, who is in New Delhi on a bilateral visit, also told Reuters that leaving a 2015 nuclear deal agreed with world powers is an option available with Tehran but is not the only option on the table.

The United States earlier this month issued a pre-emptive warning to Iran against pursuing three planned space rocket launches that it said would violate a U.N. Security Council resolution because they use ballistic missile technology.

Under the U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231, which enshrined the nuclear deal in 2015, Iran is “called upon” to refrain from work on ballistic missiles designed to deliver nuclear weapons for up to eight years.

Iran has ruled out negotiations with Washington over its military capabilities, particularly the missile program run by the Revolutionary Guards. It says the program is purely defensive and denies missiles are capable of being tipped with nuclear warheads.

U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of an international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program in May and reimposed sanctions on Tehran. He said the deal was flawed because it did not include curbs on Iran’s development of ballistic missiles or its support for proxies in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Iraq.

(Reporting by Sudarshan Varadan; Writing by Nidhi Verma; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)

Iran says could remain in nuclear deal if its interests guaranteed: TV

FILE PHOTO: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a meeting with Muslim leaders and scholars in Hyderabad, India, February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui/File Photo

By Parisa Hafezi

ANKARA (Reuters) – President Hassan Rouhani hinted on Monday that Iran could remain in its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers even if the United States dropped out but Tehran would fiercely resist U.S. pressure to limit its influence in the Middle East.

U.S. President Donald Trump, a long-time critic of the deal reached between Iran and six powers in 2015 before he took office, has threatened to pull out by not extending sanctions waivers when they expire on May 12, unless European signatories of the accord fix what he calls its “flaws”.

Under the agreement with the United States, France, Germany, Britain, Russia and China, Iran strictly limited uranium enrichment capacity to satisfy the powers that it could not be used to develop atomic bombs. In exchange, Iran received relief from sanctions, most of which were rescinded in January 2016.

Rouhani said the Islamic Republic had been preparing for every possible scenario, including a deal without Washington – which would still include the other signatories that remain committed to it – or no deal at all.

“We are not worried about America’s cruel decisions … We are prepared for all scenarios and no change will occur in our lives next week,” Rouhani said in a speech broadcast live on state TV.

“If we can get what we want from a deal without America, then Iran will continue to remain committed to the deal. What Iran wants is our interests to be guaranteed by its non-American signatories … In that case, getting rid of America’s mischievous presence will be fine for Iran.”

“If they want to make sure that we are not after a nuclear bomb, we have said repeatedly that we are not and we will not be,” said Rouhani, who engineered the nuclear accord to ease Iran’s isolation.

“But if they want to weaken Iran and limit its influence whether in the region or globally, Iran will fiercely resist.”

Tehran has made repeated threats to walk away if Trump does, but several Iranian officials told Reuters last week that as long as Tehran was not excluded from the global financial and trading system, it could consider respecting the accord.

Diplomats say Tehran would rather the deal remain intact out of concern about a revival of domestic unrest over economic hardships that mounted over the years sanctions were in place.

EUROPEAN POWERS VOW TO UPHOLD DEAL

Britain, France and Germany remain committed to the accord and, in an effort to address U.S. complaints, want to open talks on Iran’s ballistic missile program, its nuclear activities beyond 2025 – when pivotal provisions of the deal expire – and its role in the wars in Syria and Yemen.

Whatever Trump decides, France, Britain and Germany will stick to the deal because it is the best way to stop Iran developing a nuclear bomb, French Foreign Minister Yean-Yves Le Drian said on Monday after meeting his German counterpart.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the deal, which is being policed by U.N. nuclear inspectors, “makes the world safer”, and would do everything possible to uphold it.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, now in Washington for talks, said the deal had weaknesses but these could be remedied. “…At this moment Britain is working alongside the Trump administration and our French and German allies to ensure that they are,” he said in a commentary in the New York Times.

“I am sure of one thing: every available alternative is worse. The wisest course would be to improve the handcuffs rather than break them.”

Even if Trump rejects a possible remedy being worked out by U.S. and European officials and decides to bring back sanctions, the most drastic U.S. measures targeting Iran’s oil sales will not immediately resume.

There are at least two avenues potentially offering more time for talks after May 12.

The agreement has a dispute resolution clause that provides at least 35 days to consider a claim that any party has violated its terms. That can be extended if all parties agree.

And if Trump restores the core U.S. sanctions, under U.S. law he must wait at least 180 days before reimposing penalties on banks of nations that do not slash purchases of Iranian oil.

Iran’s clerical rulers have repeatedly ruled out reducing its sway across the region, as demanded by the United States and its European allies. Tehran says its missile capabilities are purely defensive and nuclear ambitions only civilian in nature.

The U.N. nuclear watchdog says it is maintaining the “world’s most robust verification regime” in Iran and has repeatedly said Tehran is complying with the deal terms.

(Additional reporting by John Irish, Michelle Martin and Joseph Nasr in Berlin, Michael Holden in London; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Iran says it might reconsider cooperation with U.N. nuclear watchdog

Head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization Ali-Akbar Salehi attends the opening of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) General Conference at their headquarters in Vienna, Austria September 18, 2017.

By Bozorgmehr Sharafedin

LONDON (Reuters) – Iran said on Monday it might reconsider its cooperation with the U.N. nuclear watchdog if the United States failed to respect its commitments in the nuclear deal Tehran struck with world powers in 2015.

U.S. President Donald Trump must decide by mid-January whether to continue waiving U.S. sanctions on Iran’s oil exports under the terms of the nuclear pact that eased economic pressure on Tehran in exchange for limits on its nuclear program.

In October, Trump refused to certify that Iran was complying with the deal, also known by its acronym JCPOA, even though the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said it was.

“If the United States does not meet its commitment in the JCPOA, the Islamic Republic of Iran would take decisions that might affect its current cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA),” Iran’s nuclear chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, was quoted as telling IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano in a phone call.

The IAEA is an international organization that seeks to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy, and is scrutinizing Iran’s compliance with the agreement.

Supporters of the deal insist that strong international monitoring will prevent Iran from developing nuclear bombs. Iran has denied that it is seeking nuclear weapons.

Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi said on Monday that Tehran “would not prejudge the decision that America would take on January 13,” but said it was ready for all possible outcomes and “all options were on the table”.

Deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi said world powers should be ready for a possible U.S. withdrawal from the deal.

“The international community might come to this conclusion that the United States will withdraw from the JCPOA in the next few days,” Araghchi was quoted as saying by the state news agency IRNA.

“The international community must be ready for this development,” Araghchi added, warning that such a decision would affect stability in the region.

Trump is weighing whether the pact serves U.S. security interests, while the other world powers that negotiated it – France, Germany, Britain, Russia and China – still strongly support it.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said in September that the United States should consider staying in the Iran deal unless it were proven that Tehran was not abiding by the agreement or that it was not in the U.S. national interest to do so.

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin; Editing by Robin Pomeroy, William Maclean)

Netanyahu lobbies world powers to stem Iraqi Kurd setbacks

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem October 15, 2017. REUTERS/Abir Sultan/Pool

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is lobbying world powers to prevent further setbacks to Iraqi Kurds as they lose ground to Baghdad’s army, Israeli officials say.

Israel has been the only major power to endorse statehood for the Kurds, partly, say analysts, because it sees the ethnic group – whose population is split among Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran – as a buffer against shared adversaries.

Iraqi armed forces retook the oil-rich Kirkuk region this week, following a Sept. 25 referendum on Kurdish independence that was rejected by Baghdad, delivering a blow to the Kurds’ statehood quest.

Israeli officials said Netanyahu raised the Iraqi Kurds’ plight in phone calls with German Chancellor Angela Merkel last week and with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday.

It has also come up in his contacts with France and the Israeli national security adviser, Meir Ben-Shabbat, has been discussing the matter with Trump administration officials in Washington this week, the officials said.

A Netanyahu government official, who declined to be named, given the sensitivity of Israel-Kurdish ties, suggested Israel had security interests in Kurdistan, given its proximity to Israel’s enemies in Tehran and Damascus.

“This (territory) is a foothold. It’s a strategic place,” the official said without providing further detail. He said Israel wanted to see Iraqi Kurds provided with the means to protect themselves, adding:

“It would be best if someone gave them weaponry, and whatever else, which we cannot give, obviously.”

Israel has maintained discreet military, intelligence and business ties with Kurds since the 1960s, in the absence of open ties between their autonomous region in northern Iraq and Israel.

Netanyahu’s recent lobbying has focused on Kurdish ambitions in Iraq, where the central Baghdad government has grown closer to Israel’s foe Iran.

“The issue at present is … to prevent an attack on the Kurds, extermination of the Kurds and any harm to them, their autonomy and region, something that Turkey and Iran and internal Shi’ite and other powers in Iraq and part of the Iraqi government want,” Netanyahu’s intelligence minister, Israel Katz, told Tel Aviv radio station 102 FM on Friday.

It was not clear to what extent Netanyahu’s outreach may have been solicited by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, which shies away from public engagement with Israel, worried about further alienating Arab neighbours.

The United Nations has voiced concern at reports that civilians, mainly Kurds, were being driven out of parts of northern Iraq retaken by Iraqi forces and their houses and businesses looted and destroyed.

“The prime minister is certainly engaging the United States, Russia, Germany and France to stop the Kurds from being harmed,” Katz said.

Another Israeli official, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, framed Netanyahu’s efforts as a moral imperative.

“They (Kurds) are a deeply pro-Western people who deserve support,” he said.

(Editing by Maayan Lubell and Andrew Heavens)

Russia throws North Korea lifeline to stymie regime change

Russia throws North Korea lifeline to stymie regime change

By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia is quietly boosting economic support for North Korea to try to stymie any U.S.-led push to oust Kim Jong Un as Moscow fears his fall would sap its regional clout and allow U.S. troops to deploy on Russia’s eastern border.

Though Moscow wants to try to improve battered U.S.-Russia relations in the increasingly slim hope of relief from Western sanctions over Ukraine, it remains strongly opposed to what it sees as Washington’s meddling in other countries’ affairs.

Russia is already angry about a build-up of U.S.-led NATO forces on its western borders in Europe and does not want any replication on its Asian flank.

Yet while Russia has an interest in protecting North Korea, which started life as a Soviet satellite state, it is not giving Pyongyang a free pass: it backed tougher United Nations sanctions against North Korea over its nuclear tests last month.

But Moscow is also playing a fraught double game, by quietly offering North Korea a slender lifeline to help insulate it from U.S.-led efforts to isolate it economically.

A Russian company began routing North Korean internet traffic this month, giving Pyongyang a second connection with the outside world besides China. Bilateral trade more than doubled to $31.4 million in the first quarter of 2017, due mainly to what Moscow said was higher oil product exports.

At least eight North Korean ships that left Russia with fuel cargoes this year have returned home despite officially declaring other destinations, a ploy U.S. officials say is often used to undermine sanctions against Pyongyang.

And Russia, which shares a short land border with North Korea, has also resisted U.S.-led efforts to repatriate tens of thousands of North Korean workers whose remittances help keep the country’s hard line leadership afloat.

“The Kremlin really believes the North Korean leadership should get additional assurances and confidence that the United States is not in the regime change business,” Andrey Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council, a think-tank close to the Russian Foreign Ministry, told Reuters.

“The prospect of regime change is a serious concern. The Kremlin understands that (U.S. President Donald) Trump is unpredictable. They felt more secure with Barack Obama that he would not take any action that would explode the situation, but with Trump they don’t know.”

Trump, who mocks North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as a “rocket man” on a suicide mission, told the United Nations General Assembly last month he would “totally destroy” the country if necessary.

He has also said Kim Jong Un and his foreign minister “won’t be around much longer” if they made good on a threat to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of reaching the United States.

STRATEGIC BORDER

To be sure, Beijing’s economic ties to Pyongyang still dwarf Moscow’s and China remains a more powerful player in the unfolding nuclear crisis. But while Beijing is cutting back trade as it toughens its line on its neighbor’s ballistic missile and nuclear program, Russia is increasing its support.

People familiar with elements of Kremlin thinking say that is because Russia flatly opposes regime change in North Korea.

Russian politicians have repeatedly accused the United States of plotting so-called color revolutions across the former Soviet Union and any U.S. talk of unseating any leader for whatever reason is politically toxic in Moscow.

Russia’s joint military exercises with neighboring Belarus last month gamed a scenario where Russian forces put down a Western-backed attempt for part of Belarus to break away.

With Russia due to hold a presidential election in March, politicians are again starting to fret about Western meddling.

In 2011, President Vladimir Putin accused then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of trying to stir up unrest in Russia and he has made clear that he wants the United States to leave Kim Jong Un alone.

While condemning Pyongyang for what he called provocative nuclear tests, Putin told a forum last month in the eastern Russian port of Vladivostok that he understood North Korea’s security concerns about the United States and South Korea.

Vladivostok, a strategic port city of 600,000 people and headquarters to Russia’s Pacific Fleet, is only about 100 km (60 miles) from Russia’s border with North Korea.

Russia would be fiercely opposed to any U.S. forces deploying nearby in a reunited Korea.

“(The North Koreans) know exactly how the situation developed in Iraq,” Putin told the economic forum, saying Washington had used the false pretext that Baghdad had weapons of mass destruction to destroy the country and its leadership.

“They know all that and see the possession of nuclear weapons and missile technology as their only form of self-defense. Do you think they’re going to give that up?”

Analysts say Russia’s view is that North Korea’s transformation into a nuclear state, though incomplete, is permanent and irreversible and the best the West can hope for is for Pyongyang to freeze elements of its program.

NOTHING PERSONAL

Kortunov, the think-tank chief close to the Russian Foreign Ministry, said he did not think the Kremlin’s defense of Kim Jong Un was based on any personal affection or support for North Korea’s leadership, likening Moscow’s pragmatic backing to that it has given Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.

Moscow’s position was motivated by a belief the status quo made Russia a powerful geopolitical player in the crisis because of its close ties to Pyongyang, Kortunov said, just as Russia’s support for Assad has gifted it greater Middle East clout.

He said Moscow knew it would lose regional leverage if Kim Jong Un fell, much as its Middle East influence was threatened when Islamist militants looked like they might overthrow Assad in 2015.

“It’s a very delicate balancing act,” said Kortunov.

“On the one hand, Russia doesn’t want to deviate from the line of its partners and mostly from China’s position on North Korea which is getting tougher. But on the other hand, politicians in Moscow understand that the current situation and level of interaction between Moscow and Pyongyang puts Russia in a league of its own compared to China.”

If the United States were to remove Kim Jong Un by force, he said Russia could face a refugee and humanitarian crisis on its border, while the weapons and technology Pyongyang is developing could fall into even more dangerous non-state hands.

So despite Russia giving lukewarm backing to tighter sanctions on Pyongyang, Putin wants to help its economy grow and is advocating bringing it into joint projects with other countries in the region.

“We need to gradually integrate North Korea into regional cooperation,” Putin told the Vladivostok summit last month.

(Editing by David Clarke)