Europe cool on Iran coalition talk, seeks de-escalation

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European officials appear cool toward U.S. talk of building a global coalition against Iran, saying that their top priority is to de-escalate tensions in the region as they cling to hopes of salvaging the nuclear deal with Tehran.

The split over Iran comes amid deepening divisions between the United States and its European allies over foreign policy and trade, with the allies appearing to talk past each other on a matter that both view as a crucial security issue.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sunday as he headed for a visit to Middle Eastern allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that he would discuss “how we can build out a global coalition” against Tehran that also includes Asia and Europe, describing Iran as “the world’s largest state sponsor of terror.”

German Foreign Ministry spokesman Christofer Burger said Monday that Berlin had “taken note via the media” of Pompeo’s comments on a coalition, a formulation that indicated Berlin had yet to be asked to join directly. He added that “our top aim is and remains a de-escalation of the serious situation,” pointing to contacts at various levels with the U.S. and noting that various representatives of the three European countries have recently been in Tehran.

European trio Germany, France and Britain, as well as Russia and China, remain part of the nuclear deal that U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration abandoned last year. The 2015 agreement aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions in exchange for relief from economic sanctions.

Germany argues that the agreement, beyond ensuring that Iran doesn’t produce nuclear weapons, also helps keep open lines of communication with Tehran to address other concerns about its behavior in the Middle East.

Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, on Sunday doubled down on criticism of the Trump administration’s strategy of “maximum pressure” against Tehran, which is weighing heavily on Iran’s economy.

“It is having an economic effect, but it is also having an effect in other ways, and we see that in what is going on in the Middle East: the danger of war is rising,” he told ZDF television. “So the strategy of maximum pressure can’t be the right one, because one of the consequences is that we are all talking about how serious the situation is, and that there is a danger of war.”

He added that “this is the time for diplomacy” — a point echoed Monday by the spokeswoman for European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, one of the guarantors of the 2015 agreement.

Asked about the U.S. call for a coalition against Iran, Maja Kocijancic said that “exclusively diplomatic routes are needed to resolve differences. The EU is ready to work with partners to take this forward.”

She added that “the latest developments underline the urgent need for restraint, for open channels of dialogue and for immediate de-escalation.”

Britain recently sent a Foreign Office minister to Tehran. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt — who is also campaigning to lead the Conservative Party and become the new prime minister— told the Daily Mail newspaper at the weekend that “we will stand by the United States as our strongest ally but of course we have to consider any requests for military support on a case-by-case basis.” He said that “we want to de-escalate the situation but we are of course extremely worried.”

The Europeans’ diplomatic balancing act faces severe pressure from the Iranian side as well. On Friday, officials from Iran and the remaining parties to the nuclear deal are due to hold a regular meeting in Vienna, with Tehran saying that it expects to exceed the uranium stockpile limit set by the agreement this week.

Iran also has set a July 7 deadline for Europe to come up with better terms for it to stay in the accord. If that deadline passes without any action, President Hassan Rouhani has said the Islamic Republic likely will resume higher uranium enrichment. The Europeans are laboring to implement a complicated barter-type system known as INSTEX to keep up trade with Iran.

The Europeans are insisting that Iran stick to the letter of the deal, with the French foreign ministry urging Iran on Friday to “continue to implement all of its obligations” and German Chancellor Angela Merkel saying that if Tehran doesn’t abide by the accord, “that will of course have consequences.” Officials won’t be drawn on what exactly would then happen.

German media drew parallels between Pompeo’s talk of a coalition and President George W. Bush’s “coalition of the willing” against Iraq in 2003. Germany and France opposed the invasion of Iraq.

Burger, the German Foreign Ministry spokesman, brushed aside a suggestion that Berlin may have to choose sides in a similar way over Iran.

“I think that one should be very cautious with such historical parallels,” he said.q