Exasperated Europeans Face Surprise Pompeo Visit on Iran

(Bloomberg) -- As European Union governments scramble to save the Iran nuclear accord from U.S. efforts to scuttle it, the mood in diplomatic circles has blackened. Then suddenly, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo lands in Brussels with little warning.

The top U.S. diplomat parachuted in as 28 European Union foreign ministers gathered to discuss Iran. After a cool initial reception to the unscheduled drop-in, Pompeo began meetings with European counterparts to address Iran’s “threatening actions and statements.”

“I made clear once again that we are worried in view of the developments and the tensions in the region,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters. “We don’t want a military escalation.”

The hard-line approach adopted by President Donald Trump has left European allies irritated at the lack of strategy and powerless to sway a U.S. administration that’s failed to provide answers on where it all leads, according to diplomats in Berlin, Paris and London.

On their minds is the risk of a return to a nuclear threat in the Middle East, they said on condition of anonymity as talks proceed behind closed doors. The Europeans are in a bind, with limited options to protect the deal. Their attempt to circumvent U.S. sanctions has fallen flat as companies do not want to run foul of the U.S. and risk trade with such a key partner.

Exasperation

Ministers from the U.K., France and Germany, the three EU signatories to the Iran accord, were expected to sit down with Pompeo, but plans were ad-hoc given the last-minute nature of the visit. Early reaction was lukewarm at best.

“He’s always welcome obviously, but there are no precise plans for the moment,” European Union foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini said earlier in the day. Later she said she’d convene with him after the EU meeting was finished.

Behind the shuttle diplomacy lies a sense that more than 15 years of heavy lifting that culminated in the nuclear deal is slipping away, according to senior European diplomats. And even if few expect an open conflict in the near term, the fear is that Trump’s unpredictable approach could have unintended consequences.

What Next?

A tit-for-tat could easily ensue from an altercation, such as a hit on U.S. forces by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, two diplomats speculated. The U.S. squeezed Iran further by designating the IRGC as a terrorist organization last month.

Saudi Arabia said Monday two of its oil tankers were attacked while sailing toward the Persian Gulf. While it did not directly accuse Iran, the incident adds to a febrile atmosphere in the world’s most important chokepoint for oil shipments as Trump dials up the pressure. Crude rose as much as 2%.

It’s the latest turn between the U.S. and erstwhile European allies grappling with Trump’s hectoring on trade, defense spending and Chinese technology. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government, which has drawn special scrutiny from Trump, has been particularly ruffled by the president’s hardball tactics over a gas pipeline to Russia.

Iran’s warning last week that it had begun to gradually abandon parts of the 2015 nuclear accord capped Trump’s yearlong effort to derail the treaty. The so-called EU-3 responded with a pledge to keep the Iran deal on life support, primarily with an investment vehicle aimed at circumventing U.S. sanctions that are crippling the Iranian economy.

The U.S., meanwhile, has dispatched an aircraft carrier strike group and bomber force to the region, cementing its confrontational stance -- and leaving Europeans with few options. And even as they reject a 60-day ultimatum presented by Iran, European leaders are laying blame with the White House.

“First of all, Iran hasn’t left the deal,” French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters Thursday at an EU summit in Sibiu, Romania. “Second of all, if they do, it’ll be the responsibility of the U.S.”

The brinkmanship has left Europeans baffled.

One diplomat said Trump’s legacy may be raising the nuclear threat from Iran as well as North Korea, rather than stopping it. Another quipped that short of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani boarding a flight to Washington and signing Pompeo’s 12 conditions, tantamount to total capitulation, nothing was on the table.

Trump himself has said he’s open to talks with Iran, suggesting the 12 demands from Pompeo are an opening negotiating salvo.

Pompeo has demanded that Iran abandon nuclear ambitions, scrap its missile program and end support for allied groups in places like Syria and Yemen. And while Europeans have made similar demands, they’re convinced open confrontation won’t yield any such results.

The treaty’s other signatories, Russia and China, may not offer Europe much help. While China’s purchase of Iranian oil could go a long way in preserving the deal, the government in Beijing won’t risk baiting Trump while they’re in deadlocked trade talks, according to two European diplomats.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.