Iran’s Rouhani threatens European troops amid nuclear pressure

Iran's president Hassan Rouhani issued a warning on Wednesday that European forces in the Middle East could be at risk if their nations joined the US pressure campaign against his country and challenged Tehran over the 2015 nuclear deal. (AP)
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Updated 16 January 2020

Iran’s Rouhani threatens European troops amid nuclear pressure

  • EU initiated dispute resolution mechanism to try to bring Iran back into nuclear deal compliance
  • Iran says it should not be bound to the agreement following a Jan. 3 US airstrike in Iraq killed Qassem Soleimani

LONDON: Iran's president issued a warning on Wednesday that European forces in the Middle East could be at risk if their nations joined the US pressure campaign against his country and challenged Tehran over breaking the limits of a 2015 nuclear deal.

"Today, the American soldier is in danger, tomorrow the European soldier could be in danger,” president Hassan Rouhani said at a Cabinet meeting without elaborating.

Meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif acknowledged on Wednesday during a summit in New Delhi that Iranians “were lied to” for days following the accidental shoot down of a Ukrainian jetliner that killed 176 people.

Rouhani's remarks represent the first direct threat he has made to Europe, while Zarif's admission represents the first time an Iranian official referred to earlier claims from Tehran that a technical malfunction downed the Ukraine International Airlines flight as a lie.

The shoot down — and subsequent days of denials that a missile had downed it — sparked days of angry protests in the country.

The UK, France and Germany have spent several months trying to preserve the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action after US President Donald Trump unilaterally abandoned it in 2018.

But on Tuesday, amid rising tensions between Tehran and Washington, the European Union initiated a dispute resolution mechanism to try to bring Iran back into compliance after it began openly breaching some restrictions last summer.

Iran says it should not be bound to the agreement following a Jan. 3 US airstrike in Iraq killed Iran's top commander — General Qassem Soleimani — especially considering the US has since reimposed crippling sanctions after Iran fired missile at US troops based in Iraq.

After Soleimani's killing, Iran said it would no longer abide by any of the nuclear deal's limits, which had been designed to stop Iran obtaining enough material to be able to build an atomic bomb if it chose.

However, the United Nations' nuclear watchdog would still be allowed access to Iranian nuclear sites, Rouhani said and on Wednesday he reiterated a long-time Iranian pledge that the regime does not seek to build a bomb.

The decision by European nations to trigger the dispute mechanism now starts a process that could result in  starting the clock on a process that could result in the “snapback” of UN and EU sanctions on Iran.

Moreover, the Trump administration has threatened to impose a 25% tariff on European automobile imports if Britain, France and Germany do not formally accuse Iran of breaking the 2015 nuclear deal, the Washington Post reported on Wednesday, citing unnamed European officials.
The three European countries triggered a dispute mechanism under the agreement on Tuesday, amounting to a formal accusation against Tehran of violating its terms and could lead to the reinstatement of United Nations sanctions lifted under the accord.
Iran has criticized that move, calling it a “strategic mistake.”
Though Trump has previously made threats to place such a duty on European automobile imports, the intent behind them was to receive better terms for Washington within the US-European trade relationship, not to shift European foreign policy, according to the Post.
It was not clear if the threat was necessary since the Europeans had signaled an intention to trigger the dispute mechanism for weeks, the newspaper reported.
The White House and State Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Trump withdrew the United States from the 2015 nuclear deal, or JCPOA, in 2018. Washington has said its abandonment of the pact was part of a strategy intended to force Tehran to agree to a larger deal.
Iran, which denies its nuclear program is aimed at building a bomb, has gradually rolled back its commitments under the agreement since the US withdrawal.
Russia, another signatory to the pact, has said it saw no grounds to trigger the dispute mechanism.

Also on Wednesday, France’s foreign minister said on Wednesday the only way to resolve the current crisis between the United States and Iran was for Tehran to accept a broad negotiation and Washington to progressively reduce sanctions.
Speaking to lawmakers, Jean-Yves Le Drian said efforts by France and its European partners since September 2017 to open a new negotiation that would include Iran’s nuclear activities after 2025, its ballistic missile program and its regional activities in return for a reduction of US sanctions was the only way forward.
“This platform is still there and is possible,” he said. “Today, it is the only solution to get out of the crisis.”

UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab told parliament on Tuesday that the European nations felt compelled to act, despite objections from Russia and China, because every violation of the deal reduces the so-called “breakout time” Iran needs to produce a nuclear bomb. Under the deal's limits, experts believed Iran needed a year to be able to have enough material for a weapon.

European countries have troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, where they mainly operate alongside much larger US deployments.

European troops based in Iraq
Britain, France and Germany are all part of the US-led coalition that is fighting Daesh. The UK has about 400 troops based in Iraq while Germany has nearly 450 troops deployed to counter Daesh and to train Iraqi forces.

Germany “temporarily” withdrew 35 of its troops from Iraq after Soleimani. Most were flown to Jordan, where Germany also has troops involved in reconnaissance and refueling flights for the anti-Daesh coalition. France has about 1,000 troops in the region to help combat Daesh in Iraq and Syria.

The EU as a bloc has several dozen personnel in Baghdad working on security sector reform and advising the Interior Ministry. European Commission spokesman Peter Stano said officials are aware of the threats, but that “we, as the EU, are not leaving Iraq.”
The Gulf
The UK operates a naval base in Bahrain that can house up to 500 British military personnel and is focused on maritime security. It also has a joint training base in Oman. France has a naval base known as Camp Peace in Abu Dhabi's Port Zayed, which houses some 700 French troops. Britain and France also station troops at US bases in the region.

Lebanon
Several European countries contribute forces to the UN peacekeeping mission in southern Lebanon, which patrols the tense frontier between Israel and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militant group. France contributes about 700 troops. Germany provides more than 100 forces to the peacekeepers' maritime mission.

Afghanistan
The NATO mission in Afghanistan consists of about 17,000 troops from 39 allied and partner countries. The alliance formally concluded its combat mission at the end of 2014 and provides advice and training to Afghan forces. Britain has nearly 1,000 troops in Afghanistan and Germany has about 1,100.

(With AP and Reuters)


Pressure piles up on Turkey ahead of EU leaders’ meeting

Updated 18 September 2020

Pressure piles up on Turkey ahead of EU leaders’ meeting

  • A European Parliament resolution called for sanctions against Turkey unless it showed “sincere cooperation and concrete progress” in defusing tensions with Greece and Cyprus
  • Turkey criticized the resolution, saying it was biased, and insisted on the need for completely demilitarizing Greek islands in the zone.

ANKARA: European pressure is piling up on Turkey ahead of a meeting next week about the country’s activities in the eastern Mediterranean, with the European Parliament urging the immediate end to “illegal exploration and drilling” in the region.

European Union leaders will meet in Brussels on Sept. 24 and 25 to discuss the single market, industrial policy and digital transformation, as well as external relations, particularly with Turkey and China. 

The situation in the eastern Mediterranean and relations with Turkey were raised by some member states during an EU leaders’ video conference of Aug. 19. Leaders expressed their concern about the growing tensions and stressed the urgent need to de-escalate. 

A European Parliament resolution on Thursday called for sanctions against Turkey unless it showed “sincere cooperation and concrete progress” in defusing tensions with EU members Greece and Cyprus.

Parliamentarians also want it to “immediately end any further illegal exploration and drilling activities in the Eastern Mediterranean, by refraining from violating Greek airspace and Greek and Cypriot territorial waters and by distancing itself from nationalistic warmongering rhetoric.”

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But Turkey criticized the resolution, saying it was biased, and insisted on the need for completely demilitarizing Greek islands in the zone.

Marc Pierini, a former EU ambassador to Turkey and now analyst at Carnegie Europe, said the resolution reflected the views of a democratically elected parliament from across the bloc.

“This is not ‘country X against country Y,’ it is the aggregated view of the European Parliament,” he told Arab News.

Germany is pushing for mediation efforts, while France is campaigning for punitive measures to stay united with Cyprus and Greece.

Following talks with Cypriot Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides in Nicosia, French Minister for European Affairs Clement Beaune said the EU should consider employing sanctions, among other available tools, if Turkey continued to “endanger the security and sovereignty of a member state.”

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Wednesday that nothing could justify Turkey’s coercion in the eastern Mediterranean in a dispute over energy resources.

“Turkey is and will always be an important neighbor,” she said, a day after Turkey said the operations of its drilling vessel Oruc Reis were extended until Oct. 12. “But while we are close together on the map, the distance between us appears to be growing.”

Fiona Mullen, director of the Nicosia-based research consultancy Sapienta Economics, said that the European Parliament was less important for the east Mediterranean issue than the European Council heads of government.

“But in the European Council it looks as though momentum is building for serious sanctions,” she told Arab News. “I think this is why we saw the removal of the Oruc Reis vessel for maintenance. Turkey cannot afford big sanctions when the lira in such a vulnerable state.”

If backstage diplomacy was successful, she said, the removal of vessels around Cyprus would likely be a carrot for Turkey in terms of the customs union. “It is in everyone’s interests to find a win-win result out of this,” she added.

Pierini anticipated that three elements would stand out in the upcoming European Council debate: EU solidarity with Cyprus and Greece; availability for dialogue but not under threat; and ongoing work on possible graduated sanctions should the need arise.

The parliamentary resolution included the possibility of further restrictive measures to be “sectoral and targeted.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had a phone call with European Council head Charles Michel on Thursday and urged Brussels to adopt an “impartial stance” toward Turkey.

The US is “deeply concerned” about Turkey’s moves in the region, according to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Ankara told Washington to stay neutral on the row.