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FILE PHOTO: An Iranian navy boat tries to stop the fire of an oil tanker after it was attacked in the Gulf of Oman
FILE PHOTO: An Iranian navy boat tackles a fire on an oil tanker after it was attacked in the Gulf of Oman, June 13, 2019. Tasnim News Agency/Handout via REUTERS

June 18, 2019

By Babak Dehghanpisheh

GENEVA (Reuters) – If, despite its firm denials, Iran was behind attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf last week and a further four last month, they represent a calibrated yet risky pushback against a U.S. sanctions squeeze, regional experts say.

The targeting of six vessels on a major artery for world oil supplies was a vivid reminder of the stakes involved in the standoff pitting Iran against the United States and its regional allies.

The latest two attacks, on Thursday, were much more complex than last month’s because the tankers were moving rather than at anchor as previously, said Hossein Aryan, a military analyst who served 18 years in Iran’s navy before and after the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Two government security sources, one American and one European, also noted the sophistication of the attacks, which damaged the tankers without seriously injuring anyone. They told reporters this indicated deliberate calculation.

The two sources, who declined to be named, said the attacks appeared designed to show that Iran could create chaos if it wanted to but at this point did not want to, perhaps in the hope of persuading the United States and other antagonists to back off rather than trigger conflict.

They did not provide direct evidence of Iranian involvement, but the United States and Saudi Arabia have blamed Iran publicly for both sets of attacks.

Whereas some U.S. sources said they believed Iran encouraged allied militants or militia to carry out last month’s attacks, the U.S. military has released a video and still images which it says show Iran’s Revolutionary Guards removing an unexploded limpet mine from one of the latest vessels to be targeted.

Tehran expressed concern over the May attacks and said the footage released after the latest ones by the United States military proved nothing and Iran was being made a scapegoat.

Germany said last week the video was not enough to apportion blame, while Britain said no other state or non-state actor could have been responsible. U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for an independent investigation.

The head of the company which owns the Japanese tanker hit said last week its crew had reported flying objects damaged the ship, but Aryan said whoever attacked it and a Norwegian tanker had attached magnetic limpet mines with a timer when they were anchored or using a boat or marine drone when they were moving.

Iran’s military said on Monday that if it decided to block the Strait of Hormuz, a vital gateway in the Gulf for the oil industry, it would do so publicly, and both Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani have said Iran does not want war.

Tehran has been at pains to underline its capabilities, however.

“If attacked, we can make the maritime regions unsafe for the aggressors,” said an Iranian official who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation.

BACKFIRED?

Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at the Crisis Group think-tank, and other regional sources said that if Iran was responsible, it was clearly trying to show it could threaten global oil supply with a view to deterring the U.S. and its allies from further ratcheting up the pressure.

Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and other regional rivals are backing U.S. efforts to cut off Iran’s oil exports with pledges to boost their own oil production to keep prices stable. But a fifth of the world’s oil passes through the Gulf of Oman and the attacks hit vessels on both sides of the waterway.

“The message being sent by Iran is that we can disrupt operations on east and west. If they can’t export, no one should,” said a Gulf industry source who asked not to be identified.

U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from a 2015 international nuclear deal last year and reimposed sanctions, aiming to push Tehran to negotiate over its ballistic missile program and regional policy, which Washington says is destabilizing the Middle East.

Washington then sent an aircraft carrier, B-52 bombers and Patriot missiles to the region last month in a show of force against what U.S. officials say are Iranian threats to its troops and interests there.

Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan announced on Monday the deployment of about 1,000 more troops to the Middle East for what he said were defensive purposes, citing concerns about a threat from Iran.

Vaez said Tehran did not appear to have been cowed so far.

“The irony is that the U.S. maximum pressure strategy was supposed to temper Iranian behavior,” he said. “In practice, however, it has clearly backfired.”

LOW COST

Iran could use relatively inexpensive asymmetric attacks to inflict costly damage, according to Tom Sharpe, a former commander in Britain’s Royal Navy who is now a communications consultant.

“They have jet skis and fast boats that are trained for swarm attacks and just one £1,000 jet ski could disable a £1 billion warship,” he told Reuters.

Sharpe said the United States and Western allies were prepared to tackle such attacks.

But the ability of Iran-linked groups to strike goes beyond the Strait of Hormuz.

In the same week that the four oil tankers were attacked off the coast of the Emirates last month, Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthis struck two oil pumping stations within Saudi Arabia with armed drones.

A few days later, a rocket was fired near the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, which had already evacuated non-emergency staff a week after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a surprise trip to Baghdad to talk to Iraqi officials about U.S. concerns of threats from Iran-backed militias.

Two Iran-backed Iraqi paramilitary groups said talk of threats was “psychological warfare” by Washington.

During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, both Iran and Iraq attacked tankers and merchant ships in the Gulf, which drew the United States into the conflict.

Iran learned lessons from that period, which became known as the “Tanker War,” and now has many more tools at its disposal, such as mines and speed boats, to use in asymmetric warfare to send a signal, Aryan said.

“That signal is to show to the Arab states and to the United States that, despite all their military might and presence in the region, the lines of communication in the region are vulnerable, to show that vulnerability.”

The danger for Iran, if it is pursuing that strategy, is that a small incident could quickly escalate, observers say.

“This is an extremely risky strategy,” said Ali Alfoneh, senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “The gamble of Islamic Republic strategists … may end up provoking a war Iran can ill afford.”

(Reporting By Babak Dehghanpisheh; additional reporting by Mark Hosenball in Washington, Julia Payne in London and Parisa Hafezi and Rania El Gamal in Dubai; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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Cars and trucks drive along a motorway near Roth
Cars and trucks drive along a motorway near Roth, Germany, August 9, 2018. REUTERS/Andreas Gebert

June 18, 2019

LUXEMBOURG (Reuters) – A planned German highway toll for cars discriminates against foreign drivers and breaches European Union law, the EU’s highest court said on Tuesday.

The European Court of Justice backed a challenge from Austria, which charged the economic burden of the toll fell solely on drivers from EU countries other than Germany.

The ruling means Germany cannot introduce the toll, which was due to take effect in October 2020. It had passed a law in 2015 establishing the charge for passenger cars that used the country’s highways.

Those with cars registered in Germany would have been charged an annual fee of up to 130 euros ($146.09), but they would have been given a corresponding reduction in motor vehicle tax.

Drivers living elsewhere would also have needed passes to drive on German highways, again up to a maximum of 130 euros a year. That worried Austrian drivers, because the fastest east-west route across mountainous Austria involves a shortcut through Germany called the “German corner”.

Austria has a similar annual toll of its own – but without the tax break for local drivers – which can irritate Germans who flock to Austria on holiday or cross it on their way to Italy.

Austria, backed by the Netherlands, complained that the tax relief for German residents effectively meant only foreign drivers were truly paying the charge.

The court agreed on Tuesday, saying the planned system constituted indirect discrimination on grounds of nationality.

“I believe that this ruling of the ECJ really is a good day for the European Union … and that it is also a sign, a clear signal in favor of fairness,” Austrian Transport Minister Andreas Reichhardt told a news conference.

Germany, supported by Denmark, had argued the charge was in line with EU transport policy and the principle that users and polluters should pay the cost of the highway network.

The court disagreed. It said drivers in Germany did not have the opportunity to pay for less than the full year even if they rarely drove on highways.

“I expect that Germany will respect this ECJ ruling and that discrimination against foreign drivers will be abandoned,” Reichhardt said, adding that he would await a public reaction by his German counterpart before discussing the issue.

German ticket operator CTS Eventim and Austrian road systems specialist Kapsch TrafficCom were awarded a 2 billion-euro contract in December to operate the toll.

German already has a road toll for trucks.

(Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop; additional repoting by Francois Murphy in Vienna; editing by Catherine Evans, Larry King)

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FILE PHOTO: Myanmar Buddhist monk Wirathu speaks at a rally against constitution change in Yangon
FILE PHOTO: Myanmar Buddhist monk Wirathu speaks at a rally against constitution change in Yangon, Myanmar, May 5, 2019. REUTERS/Ann Wang/File photo

June 18, 2019

By Thu Thu Aung

YANGON (Reuters) – A Myanmar official on Tuesday told a court that a nationalist Buddhist monk, Wirathu, who has evaded arrest on sedition charges, “incited hatred” against leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her government.

Police issued an arrest warrant for Wirathu last month but he has not been detained and has taunted authorities on social media.

Complainant San Min, an administrator in the city of Yangon, told the court he had been ordered by the office of President Win Myint, a close ally of Suu Kyi, to file a legal complaint against the monk.

“Wirathu’s speeches can cause disrespect and incite hatred in the people against Aung San Suu Kyi … (and) the government,” San Min said in his complaint.

Wirathu is infamous as a proponent of anti-Muslim rhetoric that has spread as Myanmar has transitioned from full military rule and as social media sites like Facebook have become popular.

He speaks in support of the military and opposes Nobel laureate Suu Kyi and her efforts to amend a 2008 charter that cements the generals’ power.

The sedition charge is related to his criticism of the government, not to his comments on Muslims.

The Western Yangon District Court on Tuesday held the first of several hearings to decide whether Wirathu should be formally declared a fugitive from the law, which requires a judge to rule there is evidence he broke the law.

A video was played of a speech Wirathu gave at a rally in Yangon last month, when he argued broadly against democratic governance and warned Myanmar would “drown in a muddy puddle” if its constitution was amended to reduce the political role of the military.

A transcript of a separate speech Wirathu gave in southern Myanmar in April, submitted to the court, records Wirathu crudely criticizing Suu Kyi’s relationships with foreigners. Suu Kyi married and had two sons with the late British academic Michael Aris.

“Tap, tap, tap go her high heels,” the monk said, according to the transcript, referring to when Suu Kyi meets foreigners.

A Buddhist nationalist group said on Monday that Wirathu’s “positive criticism” of Suu Kyi did not merit legal action.

Some human rights activists have said Wirathu should face action for inciting violence against Muslims, especially the Rohingya minority, rather than for comments critical of a politician.

Buddhist authorities have previously censured Wirathu, but a one-year order banning him from speeches expired this year.

(Reporting by Thu Thu Aung; Writing by Simon Lewis; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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FILE PHOTO: Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam attends a news conference in Hong Kong
FILE PHOTO: Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam looks down during a news conference in Hong Kong, China, June 15, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

June 18, 2019

By Clare Jim and Noah Sin

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam on Tuesday signaled the end of a controversial extradition bill that she promoted and then postponed after some of the most violent protests since the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

In a closely watched press conference, Lam apologized for the turmoil but refused to say whether the bill would be withdrawn, only that it wouldn’t be re-introduced during her time in office if public fears persist.

This was the strongest sign yet that the government was effectively shelving legislation that would allow people to be extradited to mainland China to face trial, even if it fell short of protester demands for the government to scrap the bill altogether.

“Because this bill over the past few months has caused so much anxiety, and worries and differences in opinion, I will not, this is an undertaking, I will not proceed again with this legislative exercise if these fears and anxieties cannot be adequately addressed,” Lam told reporters.

Lam, appearing both contrite and defiant, used much of the same language as a previous press conference on Saturday when she announced a postponement of the bill. A day later, about two million people spilled on to the streets, many demanding that she step down.

Lam, asked repeatedly whether she would quit, refused to do so, saying there remained important work ahead in the next “three years”, which would bring her to the end of her current five year term of office.

Lam apologized for plunging the city into major upheaval, saying she had heard the people “loud and clear” and would try to rebuild trust.

Lam’s climbdown, with the approval of China’s Communist Party leaders, was the biggest policy reversal since 1997 and presented a new challenge for Chinese President Xi Jinping who has ruled with an iron fist since taking power in 2012.

Since the proposed amendments to the Fugitives Offenders’ Ordinance were first put to the legislature in February, Lam has repeatedly rebuffed concerns voiced in many quarters, including business groups, lawyers, judges, and foreign governments against the bill.

Critics say the bill would undermine Hong Kong’s independent judiciary and rule of law, guaranteed by the “one country, two systems” formula under which Hong Kong returned to China, by extending China’s reach into the city and allowing individuals to be arbitrarily sent back to China where they couldn’t be guaranteed a fair trial.

Chinese courts are strictly controlled by the Communist Party.

Lam issued an apology on Sunday night through a written government statement that many people said lacked sincerity. It failed to pacify many marchers who said they no longer trusted her and doubted her ability to govern.

Lam, a career civil-servant known as “the fighter” for her straight-shooting and tough leadership style, took office two years ago pledging to heal a divided society. Some observers say she is unlikely to step down immediately but any longer-term political ambitions she may have harbored are now all but dead.

Many protest organizers say they will continue to hold street demonstrations until Lam scraps the bill, fearing that authorities may seek to revive the legislation in future when the public mood is calmer.

(Reporting by Clare Jim, Noah Sin, Twinnie Siu, Anne Marie Roantree and Hong Kong newsroom; Writing by James Pomfret; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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FILE PHOTO: U.S. based cleric Fethullah Gulen at his home in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania
FILE PHOTO: U.S. based cleric Fethullah Gulen at his home in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, U.S. July 29, 2016. REUTERS/Charles Mostoller/File Photo

June 18, 2019

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey has ordered the arrest of 128 military personnel over suspected links to the network accused by Ankara of orchestrating an attempted coup in 2016, state-run Anadolu news agency said on Tuesday.

Police were looking for just over half of the suspects in the western coastal province of Izmir and the rest across 30 other provinces, Anadolu said.

They were suspected of being supporters of U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is accused by Turkish authorities of masterminding the failed putsch three years ago. Gulen has denied any role.

More than 77,000 people have been jailed pending trial, while about 150,000 people from the civil service, military, and elsewhere have been sacked or suspended from their jobs under crackdowns since the attempted coup.

Rights groups and Turkey’s Western allies have criticized the scope of the crackdown, saying Erdogan has used the abortive coup as a pretext to quash dissent.

The government has said the security measures are necessary due to the gravity of the threat Turkey faces, and has vowed to eradicate Gulen’s network in the country.

(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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FILE PHOTO - Mohamed Mursi, head of the Brotherhood's newly formed Justice and Freedom Party gestures during an interview with Reuters in Cairo
FILE PHOTO – Mohamed Mursi, head of the Brotherhood’s newly formed Justice and Freedom Party gestures during an interview with Reuters in Cairo, May 28, 2011. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany

June 18, 2019

CAIRO (Reuters) – Former Egyptian president Mohamed Mursi has been buried alongside other senior figures of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo, his son, Ahmed Mursi, said on his Facebook page on Tuesday.

The burial was attended by members of the family in Cairo’s Nasr City after authorities refused burial in Mursi’s home province of Sharqiya in the Nile Delta, Ahmed Mursi said.

“We washed his noble body at Tora prison hospital, read prayers for him at the prison hospital … and the burial was at the Muslim Brotherhood spiritual guides,” Ahmed wrote.

Mursi died on Monday from a heart attack after collapsing in a Cairo court while on trial on espionage charges, authorities and a medical source said. He was 67.

Mursi, a top figure in the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood, had been in jail since being toppled by the military in 2013 after barely a year in power, following mass protests against his rule.

His death is likely to pile international pressure on the Egyptian government over its human rights record, especially conditions in prisons where thousands of Islamists and secular activists are held.

(Reporting By Ali Abdelaty, writing by Sami Aboudi)

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FILE PHOTO: Syrian Foreign Minister al-Moualem speaks during a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov in Moscow
FILE PHOTO: Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem speaks during a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow, Russia August 30, 2018. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

June 18, 2019

BEIJING (Reuters) – Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said on Tuesday that he does not want to see fighting between the Syrian and Turkish militaries.

Moualem made the comment in China during a joint briefing with the Chinese government’s top diplomat State Councillor Wang Yi.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Writing by Michael Martina; Editing by Jacqueline Wong)

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A Rohingya refugee child looks at others studying at a makeshift madrasa at the Burma Para refugee camp near Cox's Bazar
A Rohingya refugee child looks at others studying at a makeshift madrasa at the Burma Para refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh December 27, 2017. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

June 18, 2019

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – There was a “systemic failure” of the United Nations in dealing with the situation in Myanmar ahead of a deadly 2017 military crackdown because it did not have a unified strategy and lacked Security Council support, according to an internal report.

The crackdown drove more than 730,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee to Bangladesh. U.N. investigators have said the operation was executed with “genocidal intent” and included mass killings, gang rapes and widespread arson.

Myanmar denies widespread wrongdoing and says the military campaign across hundreds of villages in northern Rakhine was in response to attacks by Rohingya insurgents.

“Without question serious errors were committed and opportunities were lost in the U.N. system following a fragmented strategy rather than a common plan of action,” wrote former Guatemalan foreign minister and U.N. ambassador Gert Rosenthal in a 34-page internal review, seen by Reuters prior to its publication on Monday.

“The overall responsibility was of a collective character; in other words, it truly can be characterized as a systemic failure of the United Nations,” wrote Rosenthal, who was appointed by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres earlier this year to look at U.N. involvement in Myanmar from 2010 to 2018.

He said senior U.N. officials in New York could not agree on whether to take a more robust public approach with Myanmar or pursue quiet diplomacy and that conflicting reports on the situation were also sent to U.N. headquarters from the field.

The United Nations struggled to balance supporting the Myanmar government with development and humanitarian assistance, while also calling out the authorities over accusations of human rights violations, Rosenthal concluded.

“The United Nations system … has been relatively impotent to effectively work with the authorities of Myanmar to reverse the negative trends in the area of human rights and consolidate the positive trends in other areas,” he said.

“The United Nations’ collective membership, represented by the Security Council, bears part of that responsibility, by not providing enough support to the secretariat when such backing was and continues to be essential,” Rosenthal wrote.

The 15-member Security Council, which visited Myanmar’s Rakhine state last year, has been deadlocked with Myanmar allies China and Russia pitted against western states over how to deal with the situation.

Human Rights Watch said the report was disappointing, given the scale of the Rohingya crisis, for not identifying specific U.N. officials responsible for the failures.

“The report now looks increasingly like a check-the-box exercise by U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, designed to show commitment to accountability when in reality it accomplishes exactly the opposite,” Phil Robertson, the group’s deputy director for Asia, said in a statement.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Rosenthal’s report was due to be sent to all 193 U.N. members states.

“Its conclusions and observations have been fully accepted by the Secretary-General, and he will work very closely with the senior leadership to make sure they’re implemented,” he said.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; additional reporting by Simon Lewis; Editing by Susan Thomas & Simon Cameron-Moore)

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FILE PHOTO: Venezuelan opposition lawmaker Gilber Caro speaks during an interview with Reuters in Caracas
FILE PHOTO: Venezuelan opposition lawmaker Gilber Caro speaks during an interview with Reuters in Caracas, Venezuela June 12, 2018 in this still image taken from a video. REUTERS TV/ via REUTERS

June 18, 2019

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela on Monday freed opposition lawmaker Gilber Caro, who was detained in April in what allies said was a violation of his parliamentary immunity, the opposition-controlled National Assembly said on Twitter.

The move by President Nicolas Maduro’s government, which faces a challenge to its legitimacy from National Assembly leader Juan Guaido, comes days before a visit by Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, to meet victims of rights abuses and speak with both leaders.

“The parliamentarian Gilber Caro should never have been jailed,” the National Assembly said. “Today he comes out from behind bars, but just like all Venezuelans, he still is not free.”

In January, Guaido invoked the constitution to assume an interim presidency, calling Maduro a dictator and saying his 2018 re-election was illegitimate. He has been recognized as Venezuela’s rightful leader by dozens of countries, including the United States and most South American neighbors.

Maduro calls Guaido a U.S.-backed puppet seeking to oust him in a coup. He retains control of state functions and Venezuela’s armed forces.

The U.N. last month criticized the Maduro government’s handling of Caro’s arrest, saying its failure to confirm his fate and whereabouts constituted an “enforced disappearance” under international law.

Caro, who had previously spent 18 months in jail on treason and weapons charges between 2017 and 2018, was freed from the Sebin intelligence agency’s Caracas headquarters, known as the Helicoide, attorney and former lawmaker Pedro Diaz-Blum told Reuters.

Diaz-Blum is a member of the Boston Group, a network of U.S. and Venezuelan legislators that has served as an intermediary between the government and the opposition for more than a decade. The group on Monday posted a brief video on Twitter of Caro greeting some of its members in an office.

Rights group Penal Forum said Melvin Farias and Junior Rojas, two men it called political prisoners and said had been jailed for more than a year, had also been freed.

Several politicians close to Guaido who have been arrested in recent weeks remain behind bars, including his chief of staff Roberto Marrero and National Assembly Vice President Edgar Zambrano.

(Reporting by Mayela Armas and Vivian Sequera; Additional reporting by Tibisay Romero in Valencia; Writing by Luc Cohen and Clarence Fernandez)

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U.S. military releases new images from oil tanker attacks in Gulf of Oman
A U.S. military image released by the Pentagon in Washington on June 17 shows what the Pentagon says is a view of internal hull penetration and blast damage sustained from a limpet mine attack on the starboard side of the Japanese owned motor tanker Kokuka Courageous in the Guld of Oman in the waters between Iran and Guld States on June 13, 2019. U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS

June 17, 2019

By Parisa Hafezi and Steve Holland

DUBAI/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan announced on Monday the deployment of about 1,000 more troops to the Middle East for what he said were “defensive purposes,” citing concerns about a threat from Iran.

“The recent Iranian attacks validate the reliable, credible intelligence we have received on hostile behavior by Iranian forces and their proxy groups that threaten United States personnel and interests across the region,” Shanahan said in a statement.

Reuters first reported plans to send U.S. additional troops to the Middle East earlier on Monday.

Fears of a confrontation between Iran and the United States have mounted since last Thursday when two oil tankers were attacked, more than a year after President Donald Trump announced Washington was withdrawing from a 2015 nuclear deal.

Iran said on Monday it would soon breach limits on how much enriched uranium it can stockpile under the deal, which a White House National Security Council spokesman said amounted to “nuclear blackmail.”

The 2015 accord, which Iran and the other signatories have maintained following Trump’s decision, caps Iran’s stock of low-enriched uranium at 300 kg enriched to 3.67 percent.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom and Parisa Hafezi in Dubai, Additional reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin and William Schomberg in London, Francois Murphy in Vienna, Robin Emmott in Brussels, and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Writing by Alistair Bell, Grant McCool; Editing by William Maclean, Cynthia Osterman and Sonya Hepinstall)

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