By Alexandra Brzozowski
Fearing the fallout from the killing of Iran’s General Soleimani, Europeans on Sunday (5 January) called to de-escalate the crisis which threatens to collapse the landmark 2015 nuclear deal and puts NATO’s training mission in Iraq in jeopardy.
Qassem Soleimani, leader of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force was the architect of Iran’s spreading military influence in the Middle East, encouraging proxy militias to confront the regional might of the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
He was killed on Friday in a US drone strike on his convoy at Baghdad airport ordered by US President Donald Trump, who accused the general of planning an imminent attack on American diplomats and troops in Iraq.
After the attack carried US-Iranian hostilities into uncharted waters and stoked concern about escalation across the region, a furious Iran vowed revenge for the killing, while Trump threatened to hit 52 Iranian sites, including targets important to Iranian culture, if Tehran attacks Americans or US assets in retaliation for Soleimani’s death.
As Washington and Tehran traded threats and counter-threats, the EU, Britain and Oman urged them to make diplomatic efforts to defuse the crisis.
Nuclear deal hanging by a thread
On Sunday, Iran further distanced itself from the 2015 nuclear deal, announcing its fifth step back from the accord saying it will forego the “limit on the number of centrifuges”: a de facto statement that it would respect no limits to its uranium enrichment work.
“As such, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s nuclear program no longer faces any operational restrictions, including enrichment capacity, percentage of enrichment, amount of enriched material, and research and development,” Iranian news agency IRNA reported, quoting a government statement.
Experts suggested that although Iran has taken a tougher stance with this latest decision, which might have been influenced by the Soleimani assassination, Tehran did not completely abandon the deal as such, stating it would continue to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The UN nuclear watchdog’s inspectors monitor the implementation of the deal with world powers, which also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Iran also stated that the rollback of its nuclear commitments could be reversed if Washington lifted sanctions on Tehran.
The other parties to the JCPOA – the UK, France, Germany, China and Russia – have tried to keep the the agreement alive since the Trump administration’s withdrawal in 2018 and imposition of sanctions on Iran prompted a new spiral of tensions after a brief thaw following the accord.
Iran has hit back by reducing its nuclear commitments with a series of steps every 60 days, the most recent deadline passing Saturday.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell urged a de-escalation of tensions in the Middle East in a telephone call with Iran’s Foreign Affairs Minister Javad Zarif over the weekend, an EU statement said on Sunday.
According to the communique, Borrell invited Zarif to Brussels to discuss the situation in the Middle East and the preservation of the nuclear deal, with Iranian spokesman Abbas Mousavi saying on Sunday that no decision on Tehran’s side has been made yet.
The Spaniard also urged Zarif that a regional political solution was the “only way forward”, underlining the need to maintain the nuclear accord.
He confirmed “his resolve to continue to fully play his role as coordinator and keep the unity of the remaining participants in support of the agreement and its full implementation by all parties”.
The ‘E3′ group of countries comprised of France, Britain and Germany called on Iran to refrain from any violent action and urged Iran to return to respecting arrangements laid out in the JCPOA 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
“We are ready to continue talks with all parties in order to contribute to de-escalating tensions and re-establishing stability in the region,” the E3 said in a statement.
Earlier on Sunday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed with French President Emmanuel Macron and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to work towards de-escalation in the Middle East, according to a German government spokesperson.
Macron, who was said to have long wanted to address Iran’s destabilising activities in region, expressed France’s solidarity with its allies during a telephone conversation with President Trump on Sunday and said Iran must avoid “destabilising” actions.
“France fully shares with Germany the central objective of de-escalation and preservation of the Vienna (nuclear) accord,” Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said.
With China, “we in particular noted our agreement… to urge Iran to avoid any new violation of the Vienna accord,” Le Drian added.
UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the UK “understands the position the US found themselves in” ahead of killing Qasem Soleimani, saying it had “a right to self-defence”.
Nevertheless, he added he will be reaching out to Tehran, but that European coordination is needed “to get the message out loud and clear”.
The shift in rhetoric comes after Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, criticised the UK, France and Germany for failing to be “as helpful as I wish that they could be”.
Commenting on the developing situation, Germany’s foreign minister Heiko Maas called for a crisis meeting of his EU counterparts this week.
“Given the threatening escalation of the conflict between the United States and Iran, Europe is now playing an important role we have to take full advantage of this situation, which is why I proposed Josep Borrell to bring the EU foreign ministers’ meeting forward this week so that we could quickly agree on a common course of action,” Maas said in a statement.
“As Europeans, we have tried and tested and resilient channels of communication on all sides, which we must make full use of in this situation,” Maas added.
Earlier on Sunday, Iran summoned Germany’s charge d’affaires in Tehran to protest against “destructive” comments made by German officials supporting the Soleimani killing, after a German government spokeswoman had said on Friday the US strike was a response to Iranian military provocations.
Regional security implications
In the meantime, a majority of about 180 parliamentarians in Iraq’s parliament on Sunday (6 January) backed a non-binding resolution to expel foreign military forces amid a growing backlash against the Soleimani killing in the region.
“The Iraqi government must work to end the presence of any foreign troops on Iraqi soil and prohibit them from using its land, air space or water for any reason,” the resolution text read.
Sunday’s parliamentary resolution was passed by overwhelmingly Shi’ite lawmakers, as the special session was boycotted by most Sunni Muslim and Kurdish lawmakers, who believe that kicking out US-led forces would leave Iraq vulnerable to insurgents, undermine security and heighten the power of Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias.
For his part, NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg has called an extraordinary meeting of the NATO Council to consult on the situation in Iraq for Monday afternoon (6 January) to decide about its presence in the country.
The Alliance has temporarily suspended its Iraqi training mission, with several NATO members having decided to postpone upcoming switch outs of its troops in Iraq or requested their immediate return.
“NATO’s mission is continuing, but training activities are currently suspended,” said NATO spokesman Dylan White.
NATO’s pullout from Iraq could present a blow to efforts to keep ISIS from regaining power in the region.
French Foreign Minister Le Drian said on Sunday that he had spoken by phone with Iraq’s prime minister, and stressed the importance of allowing the international coalition to fight against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s office said earlier on Sunday that Mahdi told Le Drian that officials were working on implementing the Iraq parliament’s resolution on expelling foreign troops.
Meanwhile, the US-led Coalition to Defeat ISIS has suspended training activities, with Washington citing the need to reallocate its resources to protect Iraqi US bases hosting coalition forces from Hezbollah rocket attacks.
“While we await further clarification on the legal nature and impact of today’s resolution, we strongly urge Iraqi leaders to reconsider the importance of the ongoing economic and security relationship between the two countries and the continued presence of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement.
According to US military officials, about 5,200 troops in Iraq and several hundred in Syria are now focused on fortifying their military outposts instead of pursuing the Islamic State and training local forces.
“We remain resolute as partners of the government of Iraq and the Iraqi people that have welcomed us into their country to help defeat ISIS,” the American command said in a statement.
“We remain ready to return our full attention and efforts back to our shared goal of ensuring the lasting defeat of Daesh,” it added.