European diplomats urged the United States to exercise “maximum restraint” as tensions mount in the Gulf a year after Washington withdrew from a landmark deal that curbed Iran‘s nuclear programme.

Federica Mogherini, the European Union‘s diplomatic chief, stressed the need for dialogue following a meeting with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who made a last-minute visit to Brussels on Monday to share information on “escalating” threats from Iran. 

The US has re-imposed punishing sanctions on Iran since its unilateral exit from the nuclear deal, negotiated between Tehran and six world powers in 2015. Last week, Washington sent naval vessels and bombers to the Middle East citing unspecified threats from Tehran.

Iran responded by declaring it will scale back compliance with parts of the nuclear deal.

Mogherini said the EU continues to fully support the accord, which imposed limits on Iran’s nuclear programme in return for sanctions relief. 

“It’s always better to talk than rather not to, especially when tensions arise,” she said. 

“Mike Pompeo heard that very clearly from us today, not only from myself, but also from other EU member states, that we are living in a crucial delicate moment where the most responsible attitude to take is that of maximum restraint.” 

#IranDeal “We always encourage dialogue. We still invite Iran to comply with all its nuclear commitments and we will do our part on our side to continue to fully implement the nuclear deal” @FedericaMog pic.twitter.com/vjdEE7epFR

— European External Action Service – EEAS 🇪🇺 (@eu_eeas) May 13, 2019

The ministers from the European signatories to the nuclear accord – Germany, United Kingdom and France – all publicly criticised the hardline US approach. 

Pompeo, who met individually with the ministers, but not in a joint setting, did not speak to reporters as he was entering or leaving EU headquarters. 

‘By accident’

Heiko Maas, German foreign minister, said Berlin “still regards this nuclear agreement as the basis for Iran not having any nuclear weapons in the future and we regard this as existential for our security”.

Maas said he used his one-on-one meeting with Pompeo to stress that “we are concerned about the development and the tensions in the region, that we do not want there to be a military escalation”.

Jeremy Hunt, UK foreign minister, warned that armed conflict might be sparked “by accident” as tensions mount.

Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s foreign minister, joined the criticism saying Washington’s move to step up sanctions against Iran “does not suit us”. 

The US pulled out of the accord saying the agreement does nothing to stop Iran from developing missiles or destabilising the Middle East. The European parties insist the agreement was never meant to address those issues but has been effective in curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Brian Hook, US special envoy for Iran, said Pompeo made the unscheduled stop in Brussels because “Iran is an escalating threat and this seemed like a timely visit on his way to Sochi”.

Pompeo cancelled a visit to Moscow on Monday and stopped in Brussels instead, en route to the Black Sea resort of Sochi for meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

“The secretary wanted to share some detail behind what we have been saying publicly. We believe that Iran should try talks instead of threats. They have chosen poorly by focusing on threats,” Hook told reporters.

Sabotaged ships

Pompeo also discussed reported attacks on several oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates on Sunday.

Asked if Pompeo was blaming Iran for the attacks, Hook said: “We discussed … what seemed to be attacks on commercial vessels that were anchored … We have been requested by the UAE to provide assistance in the investigation, which we are very glad to do.”

Asked if he believed there was the possibility of an Iranian role, Hook had no comment.

US President Donald Trump on Monday warned Iran would “suffer greatly” if it does “anything”.

“I’m hearing little stories about Iran,” Trump said at the White House. “If they do anything, it would be a very bad mistake. If they do anything, they will suffer greatly.”

The UAE said on Sunday that four commercial vessels were sabotaged near Fujairah emirate, lying just outside the Strait of Hormuz. It did not describe the nature of the attacks or say who was behind it.

Saudi Arabia said on Monday two of its oil tankers were among those targeted and described it as an attempt to undermine the security of crude supplies amid tensions between the US and Iran.

Iran’s foreign ministry called the incidents “worrisome and dreadful” and asked for an investigation.

Abbas Mousavi, spokesman for the ministry, also warned against any “conspiracy orchestrated by ill-wishers” and “adventurism by foreigners” to undermine the maritime region’s stability and security. 

‘False flag actions’

Karen Young, a resident scholar at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute think-tank, said: “Tensions are high and have been escalated by the US, as well. We have to be wary of tit-for-tat provocations, and those that may be misinterpreted – or even false flag actions.”

The United Nations called for restraint from all sides.

“We call upon all concerned parties to exercise restraint for the sake of regional peace, including by ensuring maritime security,” said UN spokesman Farhan Haq.

Separately on Monday, Mogherini chaired a meeting of the so-called “E3” – the UK, France and Germany – to discuss efforts to keep the nuclear deal going, including a special trade mechanism called INSTEX the trio set up to try to enable legitimate trade with Iran to continue without falling foul of US sanctions.

INSTEX was launched in January but is still not operational.

After talks with the E3, Mogherini said they aimed to get INSTEX up and running and have the first transactions “hopefully in the next few weeks”.

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