Tehran, May 21 (AP/UNB) — Iran quadrupled its uranium-enrichment production capacity amid tensions with the U.S. over Tehran's atomic program, nuclear officials said Monday, just after President Donald Trump and Iran's foreign minister traded threats and taunts on Twitter.
Iranian officials made a point to stress that the uranium would be enriched only to the 3.67% limit set under the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, making it usable for a power plant but far below what's needed for an atomic weapon.
But by increasing production, Iran soon will exceed the stockpile limitations set by the accord. Tehran has set a July 7 deadline for Europe to set new terms for the deal, or it will enrich closer to weapons-grade levels in a Middle East already on edge. The Trump administration has deployed bombers and an aircraft carrier to the region over still-unspecified threats from Iran.
Already this month, officials in the United Arab Emirates alleged that four oil tankers were sabotaged; Yemeni rebels allied with Iran launched a drone attack on an oil pipeline in Saudi Arabia; and U.S. diplomats relayed a warning that commercial airlines could be misidentified by Iran and attacked, something dismissed by Tehran.
A rocket landed Sunday near the U.S. Embassy in the Green Zone of Iraq's capital of Baghdad, days after nonessential U.S. staff were ordered to evacuate from diplomatic posts in the country. No one was reported injured. Iraqi military spokesman Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasoul told The Associated Press that the rocket was believed to have been fired from eastern Baghdad, an area home to Iran-backed Shiite militias.
The Iranian enrichment announcement came after local journalists traveled to Natanz in central Iran, the country's underground enrichment facility. There, an unidentified nuclear scientist gave a statement with a surgical cap and a mask covering most of his face. No one explained his choice of outfit, although Israel is suspected of targeting Iranian nuclear scientists.
The state-run IRNA news agency later quoted Behrouz Kamalvandi, the spokesman of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, as acknowledging that capacity had been quadrupled. He said Iran took this step because the U.S. had ended a program allowing it to exchange enriched uranium to Russia for unprocessed yellowcake uranium, as well as ending the sale of heavy water to Oman. Heavy water helps cool reactors producing plutonium that can be used in nuclear weapons.
Kamalvandi said Iran had informed the International Atomic Energy Agency of the development. The Vienna-based U.N. nuclear watchdog did not respond to a request for comment. Tehran long has insisted it does not seek nuclear weapons, though the West fears its program could allow it to build them.
Before Iran's announcement, Trump tweeted: "If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!"
Trump's remarks reflect what has been a strategy of alternating tough talk with more conciliatory statements he says is aimed at keeping Iran guessing at the administration's intentions. He also has said he hopes Iran calls him and engages in negotiations.
He described his approach in a speech Friday, saying, "It's probably a good thing because they're saying, 'Man, I don't know where these people are coming from,' right?"
But while Trump's approach of flattery and threats has become a hallmark of his foreign policy, the risks have only grown in dealing with Iran, where mistrust between Tehran and Washington stretch four decades. While both sides say they don't seek war, many worry any miscalculation could spiral out of control.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif soon responded by tweeting that Trump had been "goaded" into "genocidal taunts." Zarif referenced both Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan as two historical leaders that Persia outlasted.
"Iranians have stood tall for a millennia while aggressors all gone," he wrote. "Try respect - it works!"
Zarif also used the hashtag #NeverThreatenAnIranian, a reference to a comment he made during intense negotiations for the 2016 nuclear accord.
Trump campaigned on pulling the U.S. from the deal, which saw Iran agree to limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. Since Trump withdrew America a year ago from the pact, the U.S. has re-imposed previous sanctions and come up with new ones, as well as warning other nations they would be subject to sanctions as well if they import Iranian oil.
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told journalists in Geneva that Iran should not doubt the U.S. resolve, warning that "if American interests are attacked, they will retaliate."
"We want the situation to de-escalate because this is a part of the world where things can get triggered accidentally," Hunt said.
Meanwhile, Oman's minister of state for foreign affairs made a previously unannounced visit Monday to Tehran, seeing Zarif, the state-run IRNA news agency said. The visit by Yusuf bin Alawi comes after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Oman's Sultan Qaboos bin Said last week. Oman long has served as a Western backchannel to Tehran and the sultanate hosted the secret talks between the U.S. and Iran that laid the groundwork for the nuclear deal negotiations.
In Saudi Arabia, the kingdom's military intercepted two missiles fired by the Iranian-allied Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen. The missiles were intercepted over the city of Taif and the Red Sea port city of Jiddah, the Saudi-owned satellite channel Al-Arabiya reported, citing witnesses. The Saudi Embassy in Washington later confirmed the interceptions.
Hundreds of rockets, mortar rounds and ballistic missiles have been fired into the kingdom by the rebels since a Saudi-led coalition declared war on the Houthis in March 2015 to support Yemen's internationally recognized government.
The Houthis' Al-Masirah satellite news channel denied the rebels had any involvement with this round of rocket fire.
Between the two targeted cities is Mecca, home to the cube-shaped Kaaba toward which Muslims pray. Many pilgrims are in the holy city for Ramadan.
Early Tuesday, Saudi Arabia said the Houthis targeted civilian infrastructure in the kingdom's border city of Najran, without elaborating. The Houthis did not immediately acknowledge such an attack.
Cairo, May 20 (AP/UNB) — A roadside bomb hit a tourist bus on Sunday near the Giza Pyramids, wounding at least 17 people including tourists, Egyptian officials said.
The officials said the bus was travelling on a road close to the under-construction Grand Egyptian Museum, which is located adjacent to the Giza Pyramids but is not yet open to tourists.
The bus was carrying at least 25 people mostly from South Africa, officials added.
The attack comes as Egypt's vital tourism industry is showing signs of recovery after years in the doldrums because of the political turmoil and violence that followed a 2011 uprising that toppled former leader Hosni Mubarak.
The officials said security forces cordoned off the site of the explosion and the wounded were taken to a nearby hospital.
The explosion damaged a windshield of another car, they said. Footage circulated online shows shattered windows of the bus.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief media.
Atif Moftah, general supervisor of the Grand Egyptian Museum, said the explosion did not cause any damage to the museum, in a statement issued by the antiquities ministry.
No group has immediately claimed responsibility for the attack. It is the second to target foreign tourists near the famed pyramids in less than six months. In December, a bus carrying 15 Vietnamese tourists was hit by a roadside bomb, killing at least three of them.
Egypt has battled Islamic militants for years in the Sinai Peninsula in an insurgency that has occasionally spilled over to the mainland, hitting minority Christians or tourists. The insurgency gained strength after the 2013 military overthrow of the country's first freely elected president, an Islamist whose brief rule sparked mass protests.
Dubai, May 20 (AP/UNB) — Saudi Arabia does not want war but will not hesitate to defend itself against Iran, a top Saudi diplomat said Sunday after the kingdom's energy sector was targeted this past week amid heightened tensions in the Persian Gulf.
U.S. President Donald Trump, meanwhile, warned Iran that it will face destruction if it seeks a fight, while Iranian officials said their country isn't looking for war. Trump spoke after a rocket hit near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs, spoke a week after four oil tankers— two of them Saudi — were targeted in an alleged act of sabotage off the coast of the United Arab Emirates and days after Iran-allied Yemeni rebels claimed a drone attack on a Saudi oil pipeline.
"The kingdom of Saudi Arabia does not want war in the region and does not strive for that... but at the same time, if the other side chooses war, the kingdom will fight this with all force and determination and it will defend itself, its citizens and its interests," al-Jubeir told reporters.
On Sunday night, the U.S. military command that oversees the Mideast confirmed an explosion outside the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad and said there were no U.S. or coalition casualties.
A State Department spokesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that "a low-grade rocket did land within the International Zone near the U.S. Embassy." The spokesman said that "attacks on U.S. personnel and facilities will not be tolerated and will be responded to in a decisive manner" and added that the U.S. will hold "Iran responsible if any such attacks are conducted by its proxy militia forces or elements of such forces."
Earlier, after initial reports of the attack, Trump tweeted a warning to Iranian leaders: "If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!" Trump tweeted.
A senior Iranian military commander was quoted as saying his country is not looking for war, in comments published in Iranian media on Sunday.
Fears of armed conflict were already running high after the White House ordered warships and bombers to the region earlier this month to counter an alleged, unexplained threat from Iran. The U.S. also has ordered nonessential staff out of its diplomatic posts in Iraq.
Trump had appeared to soften his tone in recent days, saying he expected Iran to seek negotiations with his administration. Asked on Thursday if the U.S. might be on a path to war with Iran, the president answered, "I hope not."
Sunday night's apparent rocket attack was the first such incident since September, when three mortar shells landed in an abandoned lot inside the Green Zone.
Iraqi military spokesman Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasoul told The Associated Press that a Katyusha rocket fell near the statue of the Unknown Soldier, less than a mile from the U.S. Embassy. He said that the military was investigating the cause but that the rocket was believed to have been fired from east Baghdad. The area is home to Iran-backed Shiite militias.
As tensions escalate between the U.S. and Iran, there have been concerns that Baghdad could once again get caught in the middle , just as it is on the path to recovery. The country hosts more than 5,000 U.S. troops, and is home to powerful Iranian-backed militias, some of whom want those U.S. forces to leave.
The U.S. Navy said Sunday it had conducted exercises in the Arabian Sea with the aircraft carrier strike group ordered to the region to counter the unspecified threat from Iran. The Navy said the exercises and training were conducted Friday and Saturday with the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier strike group in coordination with the U.S. Marine Corps, highlighting U.S. "lethality and agility to respond to threat," as well as to deter conflict and preserve U.S. strategic interests.
The current tensions are rooted in Trump's decision last year to withdraw the U.S. from the 2015 nuclear accord between Iran and world powers and impose wide-reaching sanctions, including on Iranian oil exports that are crucial to its economy.
Iran has said it would resume enriching uranium at higher levels if a new nuclear deal is not reached by July 7. That would potentially bring it closer to being able to develop a nuclear weapon, something Iran insists it has never sought.
Energy ministers from OPEC and its allies, including major producers Saudi Arabia and Russia, are meeting in Saudi Arabia on Sunday to discuss energy prices and production cuts. Iran's oil exports are expected to shrink further in the coming months after the U.S. stopped renewing waivers that allowed it to continue selling to some countries.
OPEC and non-OPEC oil producers have production cuts in place, but the group of exporters is not expected to make its decision on output until late June, when they meet again in Vienna.
The United Arab Emirates' energy minister Suhail al-Mazrouei told reporters at the meeting he does not think relaxing the oil production cuts in place is the right measure. His comments suggest there's support within OPEC and other oil-producing nations, like Russia, to continue propping up oil prices after a sharp fall last year. Oil is now trading above $70 a barrel and closer to what's needed to balance state budgets among Persian Gulf producers.
Saudi Arabia's King Salman, meanwhile, has called for a meeting of Arab heads of state on May 30 in Mecca to discuss the latest developments, including the oil pipeline attack.
The kingdom has blamed the pipeline attack on Iran, accusing Tehran of arming the rebel Houthis, which a Saudi-led coalition has been at war with in Yemen since 2015. Iran denies arming or training the rebels, who control much of northern Yemen, including the capital, Sanaa.
"We want peace and stability in the region, but we won't stand with our hands bound as the Iranians continuously attack. Iran has to understand that," al-Jubeir said. "The ball is in Iran's court."
Al-Jubeir also noted that an investigation, led by the UAE, into the tanker incident is underway.
The state-run Saudi news agency reported Sunday that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to discuss regional developments. There was no immediate statement by the State Department about the call.
An English-language Saudi newspaper close to the palace recently published an editorial calling for surgical U.S. airstrikes in retaliation for Iran's alleged involvement in targeting Saudi Arabia's oil infrastructure.
The head of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, Gen. Hossein Salami, was quoted Sunday as saying Iran is not looking for war. But he said the U.S. is going to fail in the near future "because they are frustrated and hopeless" and are looking for a way out of the current escalation. His comments, given to other Guard commanders, were carried by Iran's semi-official Fars news agency.
The USS Abraham Lincoln has yet to reach the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which a third of all oil traded at sea passes.
Tehran, May 18 (AP/UNB) — Iran's foreign minister traveled Friday to China on his Asian tour aimed at keeping world markets open to Tehran amid an intense sanctions campaign from the U.S. as tensions across the Persian Gulf remain high.
Concerns about a possible conflict have flared since the White House ordered warships and bombers to the region to counter an alleged, unexplained threat from Iran that has seen America order nonessential diplomatic staff out of Iraq.
Tensions have also ratcheted up in the region after authorities alleged that a sabotage operation targeted four oil tankers on Sunday off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, and Iran-aligned rebels in Yemen claimed responsibility for a drone attack Tuesday on a crucial Saudi oil pipeline.
Saudi Arabia directly blamed Iran for the drone assault, and a local newspaper linked to the Al Saud royal family called on Thursday for America to launch "surgical strikes" on Tehran.
This all takes root in President Donald Trump's decision last year to withdraw the U.S. from the 2015 nuclear accord between Iran and world powers and impose wide-reaching sanctions. But Trump took a soft tone Thursday, a day after tweeting that he expected Iran to look for talks. Asked if the U.S. might be on a path to war with the Iranians, the president answered, "I hope not."
Iranian officials remain skeptical.
Imposing sanctions while seeking talks is like "pointing a gun at someone and demanding friendship," said Iranian Gen. Rasool Sanaeirad, according to the semi-official Mehr news agency.
That comment was echoed by Majid Takht-e Ravanchi, Iran's ambassador to the United Nations.
"They want to have the stick in their hands, trying to intimidate Iran at the same time calling for a dialogue," Ravanchi told CBS. "What type of dialogue is this?"
For his part, Trump criticized the media in a tweet Friday about Iran and added: "At least Iran doesn't know what to think, which at this point may very well be a good thing!" Since the White House's decision May 5 to deploy the bombers and aircraft carrier, the U.S. government has declined repeated requests to publicly explain the new threat they perceive coming from Tehran.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif later responded to Trump on Twitter.
"We in Iran have actually known what to think for millennia_and about the U.S., since 1953," the diplomat wrote, referring to the CIA's involvement in the overthrow of Iran's prime minister at the time. "At this point, that is certainly 'a good thing!'"
Then Trump appeared to minutes later respond to Zarif's tweet.
"With all of the Fake and Made Up News out there, Iran can have no idea what is actually going on!" the U.S. president wrote.
On Friday, Zarif arrived in Beijing to speak to his Chinese counterpart. China was one of the signatories on Iran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, which saw it limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of crushing economic sanctions.
"So far, the international community has mainly made statements instead of saving the deal," Zarif said, according to a report by the state-run IRNA news agency. "The practical step is quite clear: economic relations with Iran should be normalized. This is what the deal clearly addresses."
Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Zarif that China hopes the Iran nuclear deal can be "fully implemented."
"China firmly opposes unilateral sanctions and the so-called 'long arm' jurisdiction imposed by the United States on Iran," Wang said, according to China's Xinhua state news agency. He pledged to maintain the nuclear deal and work with Iran to eliminate "complicated disturbing factors," Xinhua said.
Zarif earlier visited Japan, a major importer of crude oil from the Persian Gulf.
Iran recently said it would resume enriching uranium at higher levels if a new nuclear deal is not reached with Europe by July 7. That would potentially bring it closer to being able to develop a nuclear weapon, something Iran insists it has never sought.
The USS Abraham Lincoln and its carrier strike group have yet to reach the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which a third of all oil traded at sea passes. A Revolutionary Guard deputy warned that any armed conflict would affect the global energy market. Iran long has threatened to be able to shut off the strait.
"If a war happens, the world will suffer from problem in energy supply," Gen. Saleh Jokar said, according to a report Friday by the semi-official Fars news agency.
He also said Iran's short-range missiles "can easily reach present warships in the Persian Gulf," while noting the 2,000-kilometer (1,240-mile) range of the Islamic Republic's ballistic missiles can reach across the wider Persian Gulf.
The U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, which patrols the Persian Gulf from its base in Bahrain, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. However, the USS McFaul and the USS Gonzalez, two Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, transited the strait on Thursday without incident.
Also on Friday, Britain's Foreign Office advised against all travel to Iran by British-Iranian dual nationals. The government said the upgraded travel warning is in response to Iran's "continued arbitrary detention and mistreatment" of dual nationals and of Iranian citizens working for institutions linked to Britain.
Benchmark Brent crude traded near $73 a barrel on Friday, up around half a percent.
Washington, May 18 (AP/UNB) — President Donald Trump won the White House pledging to wind down the nation's many foreign entanglements and put "America First." But as his administration in recent days has sent mixed signals on the prospects of a military conflict with Iran, Trump's campaign trail promise is being put to the test.
With the 2020 election approaching, the political pitfalls ahead for the first-term Republican president could be serious.
While Trump enjoys overwhelming support from his party, there is little appetite among his loyalists for a new military conflict in the Middle East. Many are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt for now, but a string of recent moves has sparked concerns that the administration was beating the drums toward war. Among the possible precursors to military conflict: new sanctions on Iran's Revolutionary Guards, the deployment of a U.S. aircraft carrier to the region and public warnings of unspecified intelligence that Iran might strike at American interests.
Asked this week if the U.S. was going to war with Iran, Trump said simply: "I hope not."
Aware of the potential backlash from within his party, the president is trying to play down the possibility of hostilities. He held the door open for negotiations over Iran's nuclear program and malign activities in the region amid reports that he was pushing back against his more hawkish advisers' preference for a military solution.
Prominent Trump supporters offered a pointed warning on Friday about the prospect of a new war, which they view as a direct violation of his "America First" pledge.
"It would be a disaster for him and for the country getting into another military engagement in the Middle East," said Corey Stewart, who led Trump's 2016 campaign in Virginia. "It does concern me that the president has (national security adviser John) Bolton and a lot of these neocons advising him. That's clearly not what he ran on and what most Americans want."
Foreign policy threatens to be a significant political liability for Trump heading into his 2020 reelection campaign.
Overall, 63 percent of Americans said they disapproved of his job handling foreign policy, according to a January poll conducted by Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Like other issues, the partisan divide was overwhelming: 76 percent of Republicans approved, while just 8 percent of Democrats said the same.
Yet the Republican Party under Trump's leadership has shifted away from wanting the United States to play an aggressive role in world affairs. Foreign policy hawks in the GOP who have long embraced a muscular foreign policy have been marginalized in recent years, dismissed as "globalists."
By contrast, Democrats are now far more likely than Republicans to say the U.S. should play a more active role in solving the world's problems.
In the AP poll, 43 percent of Democrats said they thought the U.S. should be more active abroad, compared to just 13 percent of Republicans.
Trump on Friday sought to blame the media for the sense of mounting unease over Iran.
"They put out so many false messages that Iran is totally confused," he told a crowd of real estate agents in Washington, complaining about media coverage of his administration's recent moves. "I don't know, that might be a good thing."
People close to the president acknowledge that an armed conflict in the region is a real possibility.
Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., a Trump confidant, signaled support for a military solution if needed to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon — so long as the United States wouldn't take the lead role in a prospective war.
"Whatever needs to be done to keep Iran from becoming a nuclear power needs to happen," Falwell said in an interview. "I'm not saying the United States needs to do it. Somebody is going to need to do it."
He added: "The way that it balances out, it might be Saudi Arabia and Israel that go to war with Iran."
J.D. Gordon, director of national security for Trump's first campaign, described Iran as "a delicate balance" for the president, who is surrounded by advisers who "generally agree with his worldview."
"Preventing an aggressive state sponsor of terrorism from acquiring nuclear weapons through primarily economic and diplomatic pressure isn't as simple as many people would like us to believe," Gordon said.
While military conflict would likely be unpopular among Republican voters, the politics on Iran are nuanced.
For years, Republicans railed against the multination pact struck under former President Barack Obama to remove economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for the country's pledge to abandon its nuclear program. Trump last year withdrew from the deal, thrilling Israel and anti-Obama conservatives at home while troubling European allies who insisted it was working.
Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said Iran takes a paramount position in Trump's worldview, with the president believing the country poses a particularly destructive threat.
"I think one should never discount the political calculation, which is that he knows a significant part of his base, including tens of millions of evangelical Christians, agree with him," Dubowitz said.
The passionate opposition to the Iran deal among Trump's core supporters affords him some room to maneuver amid the military buildup, even if "America First" conservatives oppose an outright war.
"I haven't met anybody who thinks we shouldn't take an incredibly hard line against Iran," said Mark Meckler, an early leader in the tea party movement. At the same time, he said, "Nobody believes there's going to be a war."
"What Trump promised in regards to our foreign policy is 'America First,'" Meckler continued. "He's doing that."