By Robin Emmott
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Iran and the United States could trigger a conflict by accident in an already unstable Gulf region, Britain’s foreign minister said on Monday, as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held talks in Brussels with the main European powers on the crisis.
President Donald Trump is seeking to isolate Tehran by cutting off its oil exports after pulling out of a 2015 deal aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear program. Trump has also beefed up the U.S. military presence in the Gulf to pressure Iran.
While the European Union shares some U.S. concerns about Iran, including over its involvement in the Syrian conflict, it still backs the 2015 nuclear deal, saying that it is in Europe’s own security interests.
“We are very worried about a conflict, about the risk of a conflict … of an escalation that is unintended,” Britain’s Jeremy Hunt told reporters in Brussels before talks with Pompeo.
Britain, Germany and France are signatories to the 2015 deal and their foreign ministers held separate meetings in Brussels on Monday with Pompeo, who canceled a planned stopover in Moscow in order to brief the European allies on Washington’s latest moves. Pompeo also met NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.
Pompeo shared information on “escalating” threats from Iran during the meetings, the U.S. special representative for Iran Brian Hook told reporters.
Hook said Pompeo also discussed reported attacks on several oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates.
Asked if Pompeo was blaming Iran for the attacks, Hook said: “We discussed … what seemed to be attacks on commercial vessels that were anchored off Fujairah … we have been requested by the UAE to provide assistance in the investigation, which we are very glad to do.”
Asked if he himself believed there was the possibility of an Iranian role, Hook said: “Don’t have any comment.”
Trump, who wants to force Tehran to agree a broader arms control accord, has sent an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the Gulf in a show of force against what U.S. officials have said is a threat to U.S. troops in the region.
Iran says the strategy amounts to “psychological warfare” and a senior Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander on Sunday said Iran would retaliate against any aggressive U.S. moves.
“TAKING DIFFERENT COURSES”
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said he had told Pompeo during their Monday meeting: “We do not want it to come to a military conflict (between the United States and Iran).”
Maas avoided any public criticism of Washington, saying both sides wanted to ensure peace in the Middle East. But he said it was clear Europe and the United States were “going about it in different ways … taking different courses.”
Before his meeting with Pompeo, France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian urged Europeans to remain united in support of the nuclear deal, which was signed by the United States, Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia, and which the EU helped to negotiate.
For Europe, the tensions with the Trump administration mark a deepening split in transatlantic ties that were traditionally marked by close coordination on Middle East policy, despite sharp disagreements over the 2003 Iraq war.
Hook said the bilateral meeting had been “very good.”
“We agree on much more than we disagree … We share the same threat assessment,” he said. “We are very concerned about Iran’s – a lot of the multiple threat streams that have been reported over the last three or four days.”
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned last week Tehran could resume enrichment of nuclear fuel at a higher grade if the European powers, China and Russia did not do more to circumvent punitive U.S. measures on banking and energy to boost trade.
Hunt, who held talks with Maas and Le Drian on the margins of a regular EU meeting in Brussels, expressed concern about the risks of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East if Iran were to acquire such weapons.
“We need to make sure that we don’t end up putting Iran back on the path to re-nuclearization,” Hunt said, calling for “a period of calm so that everyone understands what the other side is thinking.”
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the EU would continue to support the nuclear pact because Iran continued to comply with inspections and uranium production limits.
The EU is trying to implement a new channel to allow Iran to sell its oil and circumvent newly-instated U.S. sanctions, but setting it up is proving complex.
Spain’s Foreign Minister Josep Borrell said Madrid was considering joining the special trade channel, known as INSTEX, which so far counts France, Germany and Britain as shareholders and could be operational by the end of June.
(Reporting by Robin Emmott, additional reporting by Francesco Guarascio and Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Gareth Jones and Rosalba O’Brien)