Posts Tagged ‘Rouhani’

White House Intervened to Toughen Letter on Iran Nuclear Deal

April 26, 2017

President Donald Trump’s hard-line view on Iran was at odds with State Department diplomats

President Donald Trump told Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, pictured, to issue a strident public message that the new administration was planning a shift on policy toward Iran, officials said.

President Donald Trump told Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, pictured, to issue a strident public message that the new administration was planning a shift on policy toward Iran, officials said. PHOTO: GLEN JOHNSON/ZUMA PRESS

Updated April 25, 2017 7:20 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON—President Donald Trump told aides to toughen a State Department letter last week that declared Iran in compliance with a landmark nuclear deal, senior U.S. officials involved in a policy review said.

Top White House officials said the initial letter the State Department submitted was too soft because it ignored Tehran’s destabilizing activities in the Middle East and support regional terrorist groups, these officials said.

Mr. Trump personally weighed in on the redrafting of the letter, which was sent to Congress on April 18, the officials said. The final version highlighted Iran’s threatening regional behavior and called into question the U.S.’s long-term support for the multinational accord.

Mr. Trump also told Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to follow up the next day with a strident public message that the new administration was planning a shift on policy toward Iran, putting the nuclear deal in play, these officials said.

“An unchecked Iran has the potential to travel the same path as North Korea and take the world along with it,” Mr. Tillerson said at the State Department on April 19.

The episode highlighted the divisions between Mr. Trump’s hard-line position on Iran and the approach taken by some career State Department diplomats and many European allies. State Department officials didn’t respond to a request for comment on Mr. Tillerson’s role in the exchange.

The nuclear agreement, which was implemented in January 2016, constrained Iran’s nuclear capabilities in return for the lifting of most international sanctions, including some unilateral penalties imposed by the U.S. Treasury Department.

The White House is conducting a 90-day review of its Iran policy and considering steps to significantly ratchet up U.S. efforts to push back against Iran and its military operations in the Middle East.

Potential steps include sanctions against hundreds of Iranian companies that would be vetted for suspected ties to Tehran’s elite military unit, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, these officials said.

The Trump administration also is exploring ways to enhance international efforts to combat Iran’s ability to smuggle weapons to its military proxies in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.

The Pentagon has announced its intention to more aggressively challenge Iran’s naval presence in the Persian Gulf, noting its threat to shipping lanes and commercial traffic in the oil-rich region.

In recent days, Mr. Trump and other senior administration officials have publicly questioned the terms of the nuclear deal, which was negotiated by the Obama administration over three years. They have hinted at the need to renegotiate it and voiced skepticism that the U.S. and its allies could separate Iran’s nuclear program from its other destabilizing activities.

In a White House where advisers have often been divided on security issues, the pursuit of a tougher Iran policy presents a rare case of broad consensus.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said on Monday that the White House policy review aims to look at “how we take a more comprehensive look at Iran and its bad behavior in the region.”

Some White House officials said they expect the U.S. won’t withdraw from the nuclear deal, but enforce it to the letter and possibly reinstate sanctions that were lifted as part of the accord under different reasons, such as human-rights abuses or Iran’s ballistic-missile tests.

Iran has ruled out any renegotiation of the nuclear agreement. It also has said any new sanctions imposed by the Trump administration would be viewed as a violation of the deal. Iran also says it’s in compliance with the nuclear deal and blames the U.S. for preventing other countries from investing in Iran by maintaining bilateral sanctions on Iran.

Congress requires U.S. administrations, via the State Department, to notify Capitol Hill every three months about whether Iran is in compliance with the terms of the nuclear deal.

The initial State Department letter on Iran, senior U.S. officials said, was drafted by career diplomats who played leading roles during the Obama administration in negotiating and implementing the Iran deal.

Key players on Iran at the State Department, both under former President Barack Obama and Mr. Trump, include Stephen Mull, who serves as lead U.S. coordinator for the deal’s implementation, and Chris Backemeyer, deputy assistant secretary of State for Iranian affairs.

The initial draft met swift resistance when it was sent to the White House for approval last week, the U.S. officials said.

It was taken by White House staff to National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who pressed for tougher language and raised the issue with White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, the officials said.

Mr. Trump then reviewed the letter, they said. The final draft submitted to Congress last week said Tehran was in compliance with the agreement but highlighted Iran’s role in supporting international terrorism and said the Trump administration was reviewing whether lifting sanctions on Iran as part of the deal was in the U.S.’s “national security interests.”

Mr. Tillerson initially was skeptical of delivering a hard-hitting speech on Iran at the State Department, but relented, the officials said.

Iran is holding presidential elections in May. President Hassan Rouhani, who championed the nuclear agreement, is seeking to win his second four-year term. Some U.S. and European officials have warned the White House that Mr. Trump’s tough talk on Iran could hurt Mr. Rouhani. His chief opponent, Ebrahim Raisi, is a hard-line Islamic cleric who is viewed as promoting potentially an even-more-aggressive line internationally.

“We have no dog in this fight, but it’s obviously important that the moderates get the upper hand and win and get the benefits of the deal,” said a senior European diplomat who has discussed Iran with the Trump administration.

Top aides to Mr. Trump have discounted this analysis. They said they believe Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and top commanders in the IRGC make all major decisions on foreign affairs and national security. They have said Tehran’s military interventions in Syria, Iraq and Yemen have actually increased since the nuclear deal and Mr. Rouhani’s election. Iran says it is seeking to combat terrorism.

Mr. Khamenei said during a speech on Monday that Iran’s next president should limit engagement with the West, a rebuke of Mr. Rouhani’s policies.

The Trump administration met on Tuesday for the first time with Iranian officials as part of a coordinating meeting in Vienna for the implementation of the nuclear deal. Messrs. Mull and Backemeyer led the U.S. delegation.

Participants in the meeting said U.S. diplomats didn’t express any major shift in Washington’s policy toward Iran. But Iranian diplomats protested the sharp words made by President Trump and Mr. Tillerson in recent weeks.

Write to Jay Solomon at and Carol E. Lee at

Appeared in the Apr. 26, 2017, print edition as ‘White House Ordered Tougher Iran Letter.’


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Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif

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Iran — Death to Israel has been a commonly used slogan for many years

Iran nuclear deal reviewed as uncertainty grows

April 25, 2017


© AFP/File | Critics of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani charge that the 2015 nuclear deal has failed to bring anticipated economic benefits

VIENNA (AFP) – Iran and major powers were set to review adherence to their 2015 nuclear agreement on Tuesday, as uncertainty grows about the landmark accord’s future under US President Donald Trump.

The regular quarterly meeting was expected to hear, as Washington confirmed last week, that Iran is sticking to its deal with the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany.

The accord saw Tehran drastically curb its nuclear activities in return for the lifting of Western and UN sanctions.

However, Trump has ordered a 90-day review, saying last Thursday that Iran was “not living up to the spirit” of the “terrible” deal because of its actions in other areas.

This refers to Iran’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, rebels in Yemen and militias in Iraq and in Lebanon as well as Tehran’s ballistic missile programme.

US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Monday the review would examine the nuclear accord “in the larger context of Iran’s role in the region and in the world, and then adjust accordingly.”

Trump’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last Wednesday expressed misgivings about the nuclear deal itself, in particular time limits in key areas.

Iran cut the number of centrifuges that “enrich” uranium — making it suitable for power generation and at high purities for a bomb — from about 19,000 to 5,000.

Together with other restrictions and ultra-tight UN inspections, Iran pledged to stay at this level for 10 years and not to enrich uranium above low purities for 15 years.

Its uranium stockpile will also stay below 300 kilograms — well short of what would be needed for an atomic bomb — for 15 years.

Tillerson said that the accord “fails to achieve the objective of a non-nuclear Iran” and had been a way of “buying off” Tehran “for a short period of time”.

– Tehran not satisfied –

Iran is not happy either, with critics of President Hassan Rouhani — facing a tough battle for re-election next month — charging that the nuclear deal has failed to provide all the promised economic benefits.

While nuclear-related sanctions were lifted, those related to human rights or missiles remained or have been expanded, frustrating Iran’s efforts to boost trade.

Last week Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif responded to Trump’s comments by saying that Washington was failing to live up not just to the spirit of the nuclear deal, but its wording too.

“So far, it has defied both,” Zarif said on Twitter.

Tuesday’s “Joint Commission” meeting from 0930 GMT among senior diplomats was to be held behind closed doors — in the same plush Vienna hotel where the deal was hammered out — with no press events planned.


Iran election campaign kicks off after Ahmadinejad excluded by supreme leader

April 21, 2017


© AFP/File / by Eric RANDOLPH and Ali NOORANI | Iranian President Hassan Rouhani gestures to the camera after registering to run for re-election in Tehran on April 14, 2017

TEHRAN (AFP) –  Campaigning began on Friday for Iran’s presidential election with incumbent Hassan Rouhani facing a tough battle against hardliners, though not from former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who was barred from standing.

Ahmadinejad’s disqualification by the conservative-run Guardian Council was no surprise — he had been advised not to run by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who said it would “polarise” the nation.

Ahmadinejad’s populist economics and defiant attitude to the establishment had alienated even his hardline backers during his tenure between 2005 and 2013.

“Once the supreme leader had told him not to stand, it became impossible for him to be cleared by the Guardian Council,” said Clement Therme, research fellow for Iran at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“By his second term, (Ahmadinejad) was even challenging the clerics. He was not useful anymore for the system.”

The mood in Tehran has been subdued — many are disillusioned with Rouhani’s failure to kick-start the economy despite broad support for his efforts to rebuild ties with the West, notably through a nuclear deal with world powers that ended many sanctions.

The election commission ruled on Thursday that live TV debates would be banned, without giving a reason — a decision criticised by Rouhani and other candidates.

Campaigning, which the Guardian Council announced could begin immediately, had not been supposed to start for another week, so little activity was expected on Friday.

But experts say the authorities are keen to excite interest in the vote.

“They need that for legitimacy — the turnout is even more important than the result,” said Therme.

Iran’s elections are tightly controlled, with the Guardian Council allowing just six people — and no women — to stand for the May 19 vote out of 1,636 hopefuls that registered last week.

If no candidate wins more than 50 percent, a run-off between the top two is held a week later.

Rouhani, a politically moderate cleric, squeaked to victory last time with 51 percent in the first round, helped by a divided conservative camp.

The Guardian Council has resisted efforts by Iran’s parliament, the Majles, to clarify the criteria by which they choose candidates.

The constitution adopted after the 1979 revolution offers only vague guidelines that candidates should possess “administrative capacity and resourcefulness… trustworthiness and piety”.

– Hardline competition –

The build-up to the vote has injected more interest than many predicted just a couple of months ago, when Rouhani was seen as a shoo-in for a second term if only because the conservative opposition seemed unable to offer a strong candidate.

Since then, the 56-year-old former judge and cleric Ebrahim Raisi has emerged as a front-runner for the conservatives.

Little-known on the political scene, Raisi runs a powerful religious foundation and business empire in the holy city of Mashhad and is seen as a close ally of — and possible successor to — supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

But despite emphasising his care for the poor, many say Raisi’s hardline judicial background and entourage will turn off voters.

“He seems like a good and calm person himself, but the people around him are scary,” said a tour operator in Yazd, echoing a widely heard sentiment.

Some think he may drop out at the last minute in favour of Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, who came second to Rouhani in 2013.

Ghalibaf is a war veteran, former Revolutionary Guards commander and police chief — and could be the preferred choice of powerful backroom hardliners.

The other three candidates have been less prominent so far.

They include two moderate reformists, Mostafa Hashemitaba and vice-president Eshaq Jahangiri, and a veteran hardliner Mostafa Mirsalim — a selection that appears designed to give an even balance to moderates and hardliners in the upcoming debates.

– ‘Took risks’ –

There were mixed reactions to Ahmadinejad’s disqualification.

Despite controversial rhetoric against Israel that worsened ties with the West, and somewhat reckless financial management, he retained considerable popularity, particularly among the poor.

“I think Ahmadinejad should not have been disqualified,” said Mohammad Barkhordar, 20, doing his military service.

“He was the kind of president that took risks, like distributing money among people and giving houses to the poor, and he had big ambitions for Iran’s nuclear programme. Rouhani doesn’t take any risks.”

But many were glad to see the back of him.

“It was right for Ahmadinejad to be disqualified but it happened 12 years too late,” said one Twitter user.


Iran blocks Telegram app voice calls: state media

April 19, 2017


© AFP/File | The blockage of Telegram voice calls in Iran follows the arrest last month of 12 people who ran popular reformist channels on the messenger app


Iran’s judiciary has blocked newly introduced voice calls on Telegram, the most popular messaging app in the country, state media reported on Wednesday.

The blockage follows the arrest last month of 12 people who ran popular reformist channels on Telegram, ahead of a presidential election next month.

It was not clear if the blockage of voice calls, which Telegram introduced worldwide last week, was political or designed to protect the commercial interests of domestic phone companies.

“We gave the authorisation for the establishment of Telegram’s voice call service on Friday… but it was blocked by a judicial order,” Telecommunications Minister Mahmoud Vaezi told reformist newspaper Shargh.

“You should ask the judiciary for the reason.”

Last month, the conservative-dominated judiciary blocked the online navigation app Waze because it was designed in Israel, which Iran does not recognise.

Telegram CEO Pavel Durov confirmed the blocking of voice calls.

“In Iran, where Telegram has some 40 million active users, Telegram voice calls have been completely blocked by the country’s internet providers and mobile operators following an order from the judiciary,” he wrote on his official channel.

“Telegram has historically had problems with regulators in some parts of the world because, unlike other services, we consistently defended our users’ privacy and have never made any deals with governments.”

Iranian officials have previously said there were around 20 million Telegram users in the country, which has a population of some 80 million.

As well as a messaging tool, Telegram has become the leading source of news for many Iranians, with some channels boasting more than a million subscribers.

The judiciary said the 12 Telegram channel operators were arrested on security and obscenity grounds.

“Some of these people have been arrested on national security charges and some… for committing crimes against public decency and publishing obscene content,” deputy judiciary chief Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejeie told the Mizan Online news agency last week.

Moderate President Hassan Rouhani, who will stand for a second term in the May 19 election, has criticised the arrests but has little power over the judiciary.

Websites such as YouTube, Twitter and Facebook are blocked in Iran, but users exploit widely available privacy software to access them.

Iran, Syria And Russia Issue Warning To US; Ex-Syrian General Confirms Assad Lied About Turning Over Chemical Weapons

April 16, 2017

“I could not stand and watch the genocide.”

A day after Iran, Russia and Syria called for an international investigation into the sarin attack on the north Syrian town of Shaykhun and threatened the United States that new strikes on Syrian army positions would not be tolerated, a former Syrian general revealed Assad lied when he said he had turned over all of his chemical weapons in 2013.

Former Brig. Gen. Zaher al-Sakat, who defected from the Syrian army in 2013 and is now living in an undisclosed European country, said during an interview with the British newspaper Telegraph that Assad has deceived United Nations inspectors who came to oversee the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.

Under the Russian-brokered deal — used by the Obama Administration as an excuse to backtrack on an earlier decision to take military action against the Assad regime — the Syrian dictator was supposed to hand over his entire chemical agents inventory but managed to hide at least 700 tons of chemical agents.

Sakat, who used to be the director of the chemical warfare department of the Fifth Division of the Syrian army, says that after the strike on Shaykhun on April 4, Assad still has hundreds of tons chemical weapons at his disposal.

“They admitted only to 1,300 tons, but we knew in reality they had nearly double that. They had at least 2,000 tons. At least,” the defected general told The Telegraph.

Sakat claimed Assad ordered him to carry out attacks with chemical weapons on three occasions but sabotaged the order by switching deadly chemical agents for harmless chemicals in the bombs he had to prepare.

“I couldn’t believe at the beginning that Assad would use these weapons on his people,” he told the British paper.

“I could not stand and watch the genocide. I couldn’t hurt my own people,” he added.

Sakat’s allegations about the chemical weapons stockpile in Addad’s possession are deemed quite “plausible” by Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, the former commander of the UK’s Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Regimen.

Bretton-Gordon thinks Assad used old sarin gas in the attack on Shaykhun because of the relative low number of casualties.

Read the rest:

Russia, Syria & Iran demand no further US strikes on Syria – foreign ministers — Retreat into make believe world of “Assad did not use chemical weapons” while lashing out at US, UK

April 14, 2017

Russia Today (RT)

Russia, Syria & Iran demand no further US strikes on Syria – foreign ministers
The US cruise missile attack on Syria was an act of international aggression, Russia, Syria and Iran have stated after a meeting of their foreign ministers in Moscow.

“We have reiterated our position and were united in stating that the attack was an act of aggression, which blatantly violated the principles of international law and the UN Charter,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said.

“We call on the US and its allies to respect Syria’s sovereignty and refrain from actions similar to what happened on April 7, and which have serious ramification not only for regional, but also global security,” he added.

Read more

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R), U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (L), April 12, 2017. © Maxim Shemetov

Lavrov was referring to the Tomahawk missile barrage fired by the US Navy at a Syrian airbase in Homs province. Washington ordered the attack after accusing Damascus of launching a chemical weapons attack at a rebel-held town in Idlib province from that airbase. Russia condemned the move, saying the US hadn’t offered any proof to pin the alleged chemical weapons incident on the Syrian Army.

Meeting with his Iranian and Syrian counterparts, Javad Zarif and Walid Muallem, on Friday, Lavrov pledged to continue Russia’s support of Damascus in fighting terrorism and restoring peace in Syria.

He added that Moscow suspects that the Idlib incident was a provocative act aimed at derailing negotiations between the Syrian government and so-called moderate rebel groups on a political transition in the country. Lavrov said the perpetrators of the deadly release of toxins must be found.

“We insist on a thorough, objective and unbiased investigation of the circumstance of the use of chemical substances in Khan Shaykhun on April 4,” he said, adding that the investigating team must include inspectors chosen from nations from different parts of the world to ensure its objectivity.

US President Donald Trump. © Jonathan Ernst

Muallem pledged full cooperation of Damascus in carrying out such a probe.

The Russian minister added that Moscow doubts the objectivity of the current mechanisms for investigating alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria, considering the difference in how the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) handles reports by Damascus and by other parties.

“When accusations come against the Syrian government, the OPCW reacts in a matter of days and voices its concern. But they never go on the sites of incidents located in the regions controlled by the armed opposition, citing security issues,” he said. “We consider such analysis from a distance unacceptable.”

Lavrov also accused the US of reviving the Obama administration goal of toppling the Syrian government instead of seeking a political solution, citing the Tomahawk missile attack.

“Such acts of aggression are obviously meant to derail the peace process, which was endorsed in a unanimously adopted resolution of the UN Security Council and implies that the fate of Syria would be decided only by the Syrian people,” he said. “The action was obviously deviating from this basic concept and find new protects to aim for regime change.”

READ MORE: White House claims on Syria chemical attack ‘obviously false’ – MIT professor (VIDEO)

Lavrov said there is an increasing amount of evidence pointing to the conclusion that the chemical incident in Idlib province was staged to set up the Syrian government.

“Publications by professional experts, including some in the US and Britain, say there are too many inconsistencies and gaps in the version of events presented to justify the [US] aggression,” he said.

Zarif accused “certain countries” of hypocrisy, citing Iran’s history of suffering from chemical weapons attack by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq during the 1980s war. Declassified CIA files showed that the US was well aware that Saddam was using CWs against Iranians, but didn’t oppose it and even provided intelligence for such attacks.

Trump Administration Sanctions Iran Prison Torture Industry

April 14, 2017

The Washington Free Beacon

The Trump administration is leveling new economic sanctions against senior Iranian officials and its prison system for widespread human rights abuses, including the systematic torture of those being held in these facilities, according to White House officials familiar with the matter.

The latest sanctions target the Tehran Prisons Organization and Sohrab Suleimani, a senior official in the prison system and the brother of Qassem Soleimani, a senior Iranian military figure responsible for operating Iran’s rogue activities in Syria and elsewhere.

Sohrab Soleimani is responsible for overseeing Iran’s notorious Evin Prison, which is known for torturous interrogations, forced interrogations, and widespread mistreatment of inmates.

An Iranian inmate peers from behind a wall as a guard walks by at the female section of the infamous Evin jail

An Iranian inmate peers from behind a wall as a guard walks by at the female section of the infamous Evin jail / Getty Images

The latest sanctions are certain to rankle Tehran, already the subject of a range of new sanctions under the Trump administration, which is currently conducting a widespread review of all matters related to the landmark nuclear agreement.

A senior official on the White House National Security Council told the Washington Free Beacon that the Soleimani family has a history of fomenting violence and unrest both inside and outside Iran.

“It’s no coincidence that Sohrab Suleimani is the brother of the notorious Qassem Soleimani, the head of the IRGC’s Quds Forces, who has been responsible for so much of the violent disruption Iran has been spreading through the region,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak on record.

Iranian human rights abuses have only grown under the leadership of so-called reformist President Hassan Rouhani, the official said. This includes the detention of U.S. citizens

“There has been a disturbing and significant increase in the number of detentions and executions of Iranian citizens under President Rouhani, and the infamous Evin Prison under Sohrab Suleimani’s control has been a key facility in this program of domestic repression,” the official said.

The Trump administration is holding meetings with the family members of American citizens still being detained in Iran and believed to be subjected to torture.

“In addition, we have been deeply concerned by the treatment of American citizens in this prison, and in others throughout Iran,” the official said. “Just today, senior officials in the Trump administration met with members of the Namazi family representing Siamak Namazi and Baquer Namazi who have been unjustly detained in Iran since October, 2015 and February, 2016, respectively.”

“Today’s designations highlight our continued support for the Iranian people and demonstrate our commitment to hold the Government of Iran responsible for its continued repression of its own citizens,” John E. Smith, director of the Treasury Department’s Official of Foreign Assets Control, said in a statement. “We will continue to identify, call out, and sanction those who are responsible for serious human rights abuses in Iran.”

The sanctions do not conflict with U.S. obligations under the nuclear agreement and are not being leveled as part of that agreement, according to U.S. officials.

The sanctions were formulated following a series of investigations by the U.S. government into Iran’s systematic breach of human rights.

“These designations are in response to what we see as pattern of human rights abuses by the Government of Iran and reflect the United States’ deep concern regarding the human rights situation in Iran,” the State Department explained in a background document provided to reporters.

“We continue to see Government of Iran officials engage in repressive behavior against its own citizens, including through their mistreatment and abuse of prisoners,” the document states. “This is especially evident at Evin Prison, which is where numerous prisoners of conscience are held. We have documented these and many other human rights abuses perpetrated by the government of Iran in our annual State Department authored Human Rights, Religious Freedom, and Trafficking in persons reports.”

Soleimani’s role in Iran’s prison system makes him one of the foremost human rights abusers worldwide.

Soleimani oversaw an April 2014 incident at the Evin Prison in which dozens of security guards and prison officials beat a number of political prisoners. The attack is believed to have lasted several hours and impacted more than 30 prisoners. Many of these prisoners were later denied medical treatment.

Evin Prison is home to large number of Iranian political dissidents and other government opponents, who are routinely shut down and arrested by the Iranian regime for political activities targeting those in power.

U.S. Hints at Tougher Stance on Syria

April 11, 2017

Discussion of wider retaliation comes as Tillerson heads to meetings in Russia

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, left, meets with Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, right, on Monday during the G7 gathering in Lucca, Italy.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, left, meets with Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, right, on Monday during the G7 gathering in Lucca, Italy. PHOTO: MAX ROSSI/REUTERS

WASHINGTON—The Trump administration held out the prospect Monday of wider retaliation against Syria and signaled a new push to remove the country’s divisive leader ahead of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s meetings with Damascus’s Russian allies.

Coming days after the first deliberate American military strike against the forces of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, the trip by Mr. Tillerson has taken on far-reaching strategic and diplomatic importance, both in defining U.S.-Russian relations and in potentially clarifying the Trump administration’s mixed signals over the Syrian civil war.

Mr. Tillerson met in Italy Monday with members of the Group of Seven leading nations—the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Canada, Japan and Italy. He planned to meet Tuesday with those allies along with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, and Jordan to discuss Syria before traveling to Moscow, where he is expected to address strains surrounding Syria, Ukraine and alleged Russian meddling in the U.S. election.

The White House appeared to broaden the range of Syrian regime actions that could trigger a U.S. military response as a follow-on to Friday’s airstrike, ordered by President Donald Trump after a suspected Syrian chemical attack. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Monday that another chemical attack or the use of barrel bombs—crude but powerful explosive devices often packed with shrapnel—could result in another U.S. strike.

The administration said later that Mr. Spicer’s statement wasn’t intended as a change in U.S. posture. Mr. Spicer didn’t specify whether he meant all barrel bombs or those used as chemical weapons.

The administration issued similarly mixed signals on the future of Mr. Assad. Mr. Spicer said at a briefing that “our number one priority” is to defeat Islamic State, reiterating recent administration statements, and that Mr. Assad’s future would be decided later.

Later Monday, Mr. Trump spoke with U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, and the two agreed “that a window of opportunity now exists in which to persuade Russia that its alliance with Assad is no longer in its strategic interest,” according to a statement by the prime minister’s office.

They also agreed that Mr. Tillerson’s visit to Moscow offers a chance for progress toward a “lasting political settlement” in Syria.

Last week, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the U.S. would soon announce additional Syria sanctions but offered no details on the measures or indications of new penalties against Russia. The U.S. imposed two earlier rounds of sanctions on Russia, the first after Moscow’s 2014 move to annex Crimea and the second in response to last year’s alleged meddling in the U.S. presidential election.

Mr. Spicer declined to say Monday whether the U.S. favored imposing further sanctions on Russia.

“I’ll let Secretary Tillerson talk about his meeting with Foreign Minister [Sergei] Lavrov,” Mr. Spicer told reporters. “Look, we’ll have plenty of time to discuss how those talks go.”

Mr. Spicer declined to detail the agenda for talks between the top diplomats, but said Mr. Trump doesn’t want to “telegraph all the cards that he has.”

European Union officials noted Monday that any decision on further sanctions would have to be approved by all of its member states.

The White House hasn’t demanded Mr. Assad’s removal and has said the U.S. believes it can defeat Islamic State while Mr. Assad remained in power. However, Mr. Spicer indicated the administration’s preference for a change in the Syrian leadership.

“I can’t imagine a stable and peaceful Syria where Bashar al-Assad is in power,” he said.

Following the U.S. strike on a Syrian air base last week, Mr. Spicer said Monday that Syria’s use of barrel bombs also could trigger a U.S. response.

“The sight of people being gassed and blown away by barrel bombs ensures that if we see this kind of action again, we hold open the possibility of future action,” Mr. Spicer told reporters at the daily press briefing.

He later added: “I will tell you, the answer is that if you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb into innocent people, you will see a response from this president.”

Mr. Spicer would not say how Mr. Trump might respond but said the use of chemical weapons or barrel bombs “is unacceptable.”

In a statement issued after Mr. Spicer’s news briefing, the White House said nothing had changed in its posture, despite the barrel bomb warning.

“The president retains the option to act in Syria against the Assad regime whenever it is in the national interest, as was determined following that government’s use of chemical weapons against its own citizens,” it said.

While Mr. Assad rarely has used chemical weapons, his military has come to embrace the use of barrel bombs as a staple of its arsenal. A precise count of the number of bombs used by the regime was not available Monday, and conventional bombs are sometimes reported by observers to be barrel bombs.

Still, the estimated tally is considerable. According to estimates by the Syrian Network for Human Rights, the Syrian regime dropped nearly 13,000 barrel bombs in 2016, representing dozens each day.

The bombs are crude and cheaply constructed, typically dropped out of helicopters as an attack that does not require high-tech delivery methods as would rockets, missiles or even conventional bombs.

Mr. Assad repeatedly has been criticized at the United Nations for his use of barrel bombs and indiscriminate attacks on civilians.

On Monday, at a memorial in Tuscany, Italy, to a Nazi massacre whose victims included more than 100 children, Mr. Tillerson pledged to hold people accountable for targeting innocent people. His comments followed public statements by Mr. Trump that photos of babies harmed in the chemical attacks had deeply affected him.

“We rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world,” he said.

Write to Felicia Schwartz at and Ben Kesling at

Appeared in the Apr. 11, 2017, print edition as ‘U.S. Hints at Tougher Stance On Syria.’





Russia and Iran warn US they will ‘respond with force’ if red lines crossed in Syria again

April 10, 2017

Threat comes after UK Defence Secretary demands Vladimir Putin rein in President Bashar al-Assad

The Independent Online

Russia and Iran have warned the US they will “respond with force” if their own “red lines” are crossed in Syria.

Following Friday’s cruise missile strike on a Syrian airbase, in retaliation for the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun earlier in the week, the alliance supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made a joint statement threatening action in response to “any breach of red lines from whoever it is”.

“What America waged in an aggression on Syria is a crossing of red lines. From now on we will respond with force to any aggressor or any breach of red lines from whoever it is and America knows our ability to respond well,” the group’s joint command centre said.

Syria missile strike: Trump calls on ‘all civilised nations to end the slaughter and bloodshed’

US President Donald Trump said the strike on al Shayrat airbase, near Homs, with some 60 Tomahawk missiles was “representing the world”. The base was allegedly used by Syrian forces to conduct the attack, which killed more than 70 people.

On Sunday the UK’s Defence Secretary, Sir Michael Fallon, demanded Russia rein in Mr Assad, claiming that Moscow is “responsible for every civilian death” in Khan Sheikhoun.

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UK’s Defence Secretary, Sir Michael Fallon

Sir Michael said the attack had happened “on their watch” and that Vladimir Putin must now live up to previous promises that Mr Assad’s chemical weapons had been destroyed.

Experts have dismissed Russia’s claim that a rebel chemical weapons facility caused the deaths.

Britain, the US and France accused Mr Assad’s regime of gassing civilians in the opposition-held town, but Damascus claimed it destroyed its toxic stockpiles following an international agreement struck in 2013.

Defence Secretary Michael Fallon says UK backs US airstrikes on Syria

The Russian defence ministry put out a competing version of events claiming legitimate Syrian air strikes against “terrorists” had struck a warehouse used to produce and store shells containing toxic gas, which were allegedly being sent to Iraq.

The joint command centre also said on Sunday the missile strike would not deter it from “liberating” Syria, and that the US military presence in the north of the country amounted to an illegal “occupation”.

Mr Putin and Iranian leader Hassan Rouhani have called for an objective investigation into the chemical attack.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Sunday that Moscow had failed to carry out the 2013 agreement to secure and destroy chemical weapons in Syria.

“The failure related to the recent strike and the recent terrible chemical weapons attack in large measure is a failure on Russia’s part to achieve its commitment to the international community,”  he said on ABC’s This Week.

Mr Tillerson is expected in Moscow in the coming days for talks with Russian officials.

He stopped short of accusing Russia of being directly involved in the planning or execution of the attack.

But he said the US expected Russia to take a tougher stance against Syria by rethinking its alliance with Mr Assad because “every time one of these horrific attacks occurs, it draws Russia closer into some level of responsibility.”

Additional reporting by agencies

Russia and Iran pledge to hit back against further Syria strikes by U.S.

April 10, 2017

Clockwise from Top left: Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The command centre for the two countries and allied groups released a joint statement today saying they would ‘respond to future breaches of red lines with force’


RUSSIA and Iran have said they will respond to further American military actions following the air strike in Syria last week.

In a joint statement, the command centre for the two countries and allied groups said “we will respond to any aggression”.

The statement read: “What America waged in an aggression on Syria is a crossing of red lines. From now on we will respond with force to any aggressor or any breach of red lines from whoever it is and America knows our ability to respond well.”

The warning comes on the same day that:

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani condemned “flagrant US aggression on Syria” following the missile strike on a Syrian air base in response to a suspected chemical attack by the Syrian government on innocent civilians.

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Iranian President Hassan Rouhani

The Iranian leader, a key ally of Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad, called yesterday for an impartial investigation into the chemical attack that killed at least 70 people.

He warned that the American strikes in response risked escalating extremism in the region, reported Iranian state television.

In a phone call with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, Rouhani told him: “Allegations that Syria launched the chemical attack were just a pretext to disrupt the Syrian peace process”.


Second front-on angle video of US tomahawk missile being launched at Syrian airbaseThe Syrian state news agency SANA said Assad told Rouhani the Syrian people and army were “determined to crush terrorism in every part of Syrian territory” – a reference to the rebels who have been fighting his bloody rule for six years.

He also thanked Rouhani for Iran’s support for “the Syrian nation”.

In a speech on Sunday, Rouhani also criticised US-allied Gulf Arab states for endorsing the missile strike.

He said: “Unfortunately, there are countries in our own region which encourage America’s acts of aggression.” He warned: “Your turn will come too.”

Saudi Arabia hailed the strike as a “courageous decision” by President Donald Trump and a Saudi ally, the United Arab Emirates, declared they also supported the action.

Both countries are part of the US-led coalition fighting ISIS in Syria.

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