EU foreign ministers on Monday expressed fears about rising tension between the West and Iran as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made an unexpected visit to Brussels.
At a regular gathering in the Belgian capital, EU ministers did not hide their fears that U.S. strategy toward Tehran carries grave risks.
“I think there’s a real concern that an escalation that is unintended could end up with a much more serious situation than we’re fearing,” British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told reporters ahead of the meeting.
“Any escalation should be avoided,” said Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief.
On the sidelines of the meeting, Hunt and Mogherini also held talks with the foreign ministers of Germany and France, the other two European signatories of the 2015 deal that lifted sanctions on Tehran in return for a suspension of Iran’s nuclear program.
That deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was backed by the Obama administration but U.S. President Donald Trump branded the pact “a disaster” and pulled out last year.
Last week Iran decided to withdraw from some parts of the deal and gave a 60-day ultimatum to the signatories to deliver on their promises to protect Iran’s oil and banking sectors from U.S. sanctions. The EU rejected that ultimatum immediately but declared it still wants to preserve the deal.
The U.S reacted with new sanctions, on top of those already imposed on oil exports, and has been increasing air and naval power in the Middle East in recent weeks.
Diplomats in Brussels said they expected Pompeo to push the EU to renegotiate the whole deal with Iran. But senior EU officials called for the bloc to remain committed to the pact. Some countries, like France, argue the current deal could be improved by being amended to try to curb Iran’s ballistic missiles program, for example.
“It is important that Europe stays united regarding this issue. It has been the case so far and I am convinced that it will remain so,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters.
The announcement of Pompeo’s arrival came as a surprise on Sunday evening when the State Department said Pompeo canceled a planned visit to Moscow to head to Brussels instead. He was expected to hold meetings with the ministers of the U.K., France and Germany, and with Mogherini.
Pompeo’s visit came as Saudi Arabia alleged that two of its oil tankers had been victims of “sabotage” off the coast of the United Arab Emirates. An oil tanker flying the UAE flag and one flying the Norwegian flag also were targeted, according to media reports. Details about the alleged sabotage were unclear, though CNN reported that it had captured images of damage to the hull of the Norway-flagged vessel.
Although there were no direct accusations that Iran was behind the suspected sabotage, the rising tension between Washington and Tehran has spurred concerns that Iran or proxy groups allied with it might aim to disrupt the global oil supply. Iranian officials, however, expressed concern about the latest reports, while also warning against foreign “adventurism” in the region.
European diplomats say they are worried that the tension between Washington and Tehran could lead to a military confrontation. Some point at an op-ed entitled “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran,” written in 2015 by John Bolton, who became U.S. national security adviser last year.
“I don’t think that anybody wants a war in Iran or generally in the Middle East, but accidents happen when tension is rising so we must be very careful,” Greek Foreign Minister George Katrougalos told POLITICO in an interview.
Yet officials also admit that the EU is toothless when it comes to its ability to counter aggressive U.S. foreign policy.
The EU has set up a so-called “special purpose vehicle” intended to let European companies continue to trade with Iran. But European firms could face penalties from the U.S. if they choose to take that path.
“A lot depends on the willingness of companies,” Johannes Hahn, the European commissioner for relations with the bloc’s neighbors, told reporters. “We have created the conditions for European companies to do business with Iran, but nevertheless many companies are concerned that if they do business with Iran, there will be consequences for their activities in the United States, that’s why they are holding back.”
“I cannot force a private company to do business in Iran,” he added.
Katrougalos said the dispute over Iran underscored a need for the EU to strengthen its own foreign and defense policy.
“Sometimes it looks that we don’t have our policy and we’re drowned behind the other great powers,” he said.
Nahal Toosi contributed reporting from Washington.