BRUSSELS – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo crashed a meeting of European foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday to push for a united transatlantic front against Tehran and its nuclear program. But he failed to bend attitudes among leaders who fear the United States and Iran are inching toward war.
Pompeo’s last-minute decision to visit the European Union capital, announced as he boarded a plane from the United States, set up a confrontation between the top U.S. diplomat and his European counterparts, who have been scrambling to save the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal last year. At least one, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, said he feared that unintentional escalation from the United States and Iran could spark a conflict – an unusually bold statement that appeared to assign equal culpability to Washington and Tehran.
The visit came on a day that the Saudi Foreign Ministry said two of its oil tankers and a Norwegian ship were damaged over the weekend near the Persian Gulf, in what it claimed was an “act of sabotage.”
A statement from Thome Ship Management, the owners of the Norwegian-flagged vessel, said an “unknown object” had created a hole in the hull of one of its ships, the MT Andrea Victory. Photographs of the ship show a hole just above the waterline.
Neither Saudi Arabia nor the United Arab Emirates produced photographs to support claims that Saudi tankers had incurred “significant damage.” The incidents did not cause casualties or oil spills, according to a statement by Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih.
The countries stopped short of assigning blame, but the incidents occurred at the same time and in the same place off the coast of the UAE only days after the United States dispatched warships and bombers to the area to deter alleged threats from Iran.
Navy Cmdr. Rebecca Rebarich, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said Monday that the Defense Department is providing assistance with the investigation, but she said she had “nothing additional to provide at this time.”
Scott Truver, a Washington-based naval analyst, said his best assessment is that the ship was struck with some sort of a floating mine that explodes upon contact. They are typically about 100 pounds each and can be emplaced by rolling them off the side of a small-surface vessel or power boat.
“It can be done so surreptitiously,” said Truver, who has studied mines for decades. “They’re very insidious. Once they’re put in the water, they’re very hard to detect and hard to defeat.”
Asked on Monday about the damage to the ships, President Donald Trump seemed to implicate Iran.
“It’s going to be a bad problem for Iran if something happens, I can tell you that,” he said. “They’re not going to be happy. They are not going to be happy people, OK?”
Iran’s Foreign Ministry condemned the shipping incidents as “alarming and regrettable” and said they would have a “negative effect” on shipping safety and maritime security, according to the Iranian Students’ News Agency.
The Trump administration has called for “maximum pressure” on Iran. The EU’s chief diplomat, Federica Mogherini, reached for a different extreme after meeting with Pompeo on Monday.
“The most responsible attitude to take,” she said, “should be that of maximum restraint and avoiding any escalation on the military side.”
Pompeo was rebuffed on even some basic requests in Brussels. While his plane crossed the Atlantic, European diplomats haggled over how much to accommodate him while his plane sped across the Atlantic. Although Mogherini managed to find time, initially she said she had a busy day and that the pair would talk “if we manage to arrange a meeting.” The top diplomats of Britain, France and Germany agreed to meet one on one with Pompeo but would not allow the Americans the symbolic victory of a group meeting. (The Europeans publicly blamed scheduling difficulties.)
U.S. diplomats downplayed talk of a split.
“No, no, this was great,” Pompeo told Mogherini after she appeared to apologize for not meeting collectively while they posed for pictures together.
“You had a busy day,” he said.
“We agree on much more than we disagree. That continues to be the case,” said Pompeo’s top Iran adviser, Brian Hook. “We share the same threat assessment. 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.”
But the Europeans said they are fearful about the behavior of both Iran and the Trump administration.
“We are very worried about the risk of a conflict happening by accident, with an escalation that is unintended really on either side,” said Hunt, the British foreign secretary. “What we need is a period of calm to make sure that everyone understands what the other side is thinking. Most of all, we need to make sure we don’t end up putting Iran back on the path to renuclearization.”
The incidents in the Persian Gulf follow a surge in U.S.-Iranian tensions in recent weeks. First, the Trump administration lifted sanctions waivers given to eight countries that import Iranian oil, in a bid to bring Iran’s exports down to “zero,” according to U.S. officials. Iranian imports had already plunged after the Trump administration pulled out of the Iran nuclear accord and reimposed sanctions in November. The expiration of the waivers is expected to inflict further pain on Iran’s reeling economy.
Then, the United States said it had received intelligence that Iran was planning some kind of attack on U.S. forces in the Middle East.
The Pentagon dispatched reinforcements to the Persian Gulf, including an aircraft carrier, a Patriot missile battery and a squadron of B-52 bombers. The moves prompted Iran to warn that it is prepared to retaliate if attacked.
Tehran also announced last week that it would scale back its compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal it struck with major world powers and step up uranium enrichment, raising concern among the accord’s remaining signatories that it will soon collapse altogether. Europe still considers the deal key to preventing a nuclear-armed Iran.
The Trump administration responded to the move by slapping new sanctions on metals exports.
Pompeo scrapped a day of mostly ceremonial events in Moscow on Monday in favor of the Brussels stopover. He plans to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Tuesday.
Diplomats familiar with Pompeo’s conversations in Brussels said little new ground was covered, with each side repeating talking points about whether the nuclear deal is worth preserving
“I once again made it clear that we are concerned about developments and tensions in the region,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said after meeting with Pompeo.
European leaders agree with the United States that Iran’s developing ballistic missile program and its belligerent behavior are problematic. But they differ about whether that means the nuclear deal – a key part of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy legacy – should be scrapped.
Abbas Mousavi, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, suggested that the apparent sabotage might have been carried out as part of a conspiracy to ignite conflict in the region. He cautioned against “plots by ill-wishers to disrupt regional security” and called for an inquiry.
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Sly reported from Beirut. The Washington Post’s Quentin Aries in Brussels and Anton Troianovski in Sochi, Russia, contributed to this report.