Mike Pompeo, U.S. secretary of state, speaks during a news conference at the State Department in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Alex Wroblewski/Bloomberg)

Pompeo Arrives in Baghdad After Canceling Trip to Meet Merkel

(Bloomberg) -- U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo made an unannounced visit to Baghdad on Tuesday to meet Iraq’s prime minister and president after canceling a trip to see German Chancellor Angela Merkel earlier in the day.

Pompeo said he spoke with the Iraqi leaders about an “escalating” threat from Iran, adding that they also discussed “big energy deals” to help wean the Iraqi economy from Tehran’s influence. The trip comes as the Trump administration is seeking to ramp up pressure on Iran by restricting its ability to sell oil and designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization.

This week the U.S. said it was accelerating plans to send an aircraft carrier group to the Middle East in response to “heightened Iranian readiness to conduct offensive operations against U.S. forces and our interests,” according to a Pentagon statement. The U.S. hasn’t given more details about the threat.

Despite that pressure, Iran and Iraq have nurtured closer ties that have undermined American efforts to solidify Middle East support against the Tehran government. While visiting American officials are often limited in where they can travel within Iraq because of security concerns, Iranian officials travel widely and President Hassan Rouhani made an official state visit to Baghdad in March.

That kind of access has frustrated U.S. officials.

“We want to make sure that Iraq is positioned so that the relationship that we’ve built with them and that our allies in the region have built with them -- allies that range all across the Gulf, who understand that the primary threat in the Middle East is Iran -- remains strong and those relationships remain strong,” Pompeo told reporters on his plane.

American sanctions have hit hard in Iran. With its economy under strain following President Donald Trump’s decision to quit the Iran nuclear accord agreed upon in 2015, Rouhani is expected to formally announce plans Wednesday to scale back his country’s commitments to the accord, which it has struggled to keep alive with European partners.

Hours before the Pompeo visit, there was confusion in Europe about his change in plans. Merkel’s office issued a terse statement saying that a joint appearance was called off “because of the visit’s cancellation by the U.S. side” and directing further inquiries to the American Embassy.

Pompeo was scheduled to visit Germany as part of a tour that began in Finland on Monday with a meeting with the Arctic Council, where he met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. A visit to London on Wednesday is still on, according to a U.K. Foreign Office spokeswoman, and Pompeo then plans to fly on to Greenland.

Tense Relations

Germany’s Foreign Ministry said Pompeo expressed regret for the cancellation in a phone call with Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and both agreed to find a new date “quickly.”

“He understood completely,” Pompeo said. “He also knows that our relationship with Iraq is important. We’re partners in the challenges Iran presents to Germany and to Europe as well.”

U.S.-German relations have been tense since Trump’s election, weighed down by differences on trade, Germany’s balking at a ban of Huawei Technologies Co., American criticism of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and Trump’s accusations that Germany is spending too little on defense.

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