Via Financial Times

The head of Nato has warned a new Middle East conflict would be in “no one’s interests” as leading European powers urged de-escalation in the Iran crisis but stopped short of criticising the US assassination of one of the Islamic republic’s top military commanders.

The 29-member western military alliance held emergency talks on the crisis in Brussels on Monday as Germany and the UK sought to keep going the fight against the Isis militant group in the face of security threats after the killing of Qassem Soleimani last week. 

European diplomats are desperate to ease tensions and save a near-dead international nuclear deal with Iran, but many analysts say EU countries are short of leverage and increasingly marginalised because they are unhappy about the actions of both Washington and Tehran.

Jens Stoltenberg, Nato secretary-general, said the organisation’s members had been briefed by US officials on the situation in the Middle East and had called for “restraint and de-escalation”, citing concerns about Iran’s destabilising activities in the region.

“A new conflict would be in no one’s interests,” Mr Stoltenberg said. “So Iran must refrain from further violence and provocations”.

Mr Stoltenberg declined to say whether fellow Nato allies had criticised Washington over Soleimani’s assassination, which he said was a “US decision”.

Nato had called for the Iran discussions after it suspended its training mission in Iraq over security concerns sparked by the US air strike in Baghdad last week that killed Soleimani, who oversaw Tehran’s foreign military strategy. 

Angela Merkel, German chancellor, France’s president Emmanuel Macron and Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, said earlier in a statement that they were “gravely concerned” about Iran’s activities in the region, including through the Quds force commanded by Soleimani.

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They also criticised Tehran’s decision, announced late on Sunday, to ditch core curbs on its atomic energy programme agreed under the landmark 2015 nuclear deal — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), including on uranium enrichment. 

“We call on all parties to exercise utmost restraint and responsibility,” the EU leaders said. “We specifically call on Iran to refrain from further violent action or proliferation, and urge Iran to reverse all measures inconsistent with the JCPOA.” 

The statement struck a more emollient tone towards Washington after Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, had criticised European powers as “not helpful” enough in the immediate aftermath of the Soleimani assassination. 

Ellie Geranmayeh, a Middle East specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank, called the “E3” declaration “one-sided” and said it might do “more harm than good”.

“E3 making itself increasingly irrelevant to calculations in both Tehran & DC, and may end up provoking an already cornered Tehran,” she tweeted. 

The leaders’ statement was part of a broader effort by EU officials and national diplomats to appeal for de-escalation and rescue the nuclear agreement, which has been under intense pressure since President Donald Trump’s administration pulled out in May 2018 and reimposed tough sanctions on Iran. 

EU foreign ministers are expected to hold an emergency meeting in Brussels on Friday. Ms Merkel will travel to Moscow on Saturday to meet President Vladimir Putin, in a hastily arranged trip that reflects deepening concern in both Germany and Russia, a fellow nuclear agreement signatory, about rising Middle East tensions.

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The German leader also phoned Mr Johnson and Mr Macron on Sunday and spoke to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday. 

Steffen Seibert, Ms Merkel’s spokesman, said it was important “not to give up what we’ve achieved too quickly, under the influence of the latest developments”.

“That could endanger the progress we’ve made in the fight against [Isis], and we don’t want that,” he said. It was a key priority of Germany to keep the anti-Isis coalition together, he added. 

Rainer Breul, German foreign ministry spokesman, said the government was also seeking talks with the Iraqis on “how they want to shape the future relationship”, in view of the parliamentary resolution over the weekend demanding the withdrawal of US troops.

Germany has suspended its mission for training Iraqi and Kurdish forces in northern Iraq, and has confined all its servicemen and women to base.

Britain urged the government in Baghdad not to expel foreign troops from the country in retaliation for the killing of Soleimani and an Iraqi militia leader. 

“The coalition is in Iraq to protect Iraqis and others from the threat from Daesh [Isis] at the request of the Iraqi government,” a spokesman for Mr Johnson said, adding that Dominic Raab, foreign secretary, had spoken to the Iraqi president and prime minister at the weekend. “We urge the Iraqi government to ensure the coalition is able to continue our vital work countering this shared threat.” 

EU officials were focused on efforts to save the nuclear deal after Iran announced the latest of its escalating breaches of the agreement.

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Some diplomats and analysts argue that Iran offered some space for diplomacy because it did not say it would ramp up uranium enrichment or end UN monitoring visits.

Josep Borrell, EU foreign policy chief, expressed “deep regret” on Monday about Iran’s announcement on breaches of the nuclear deal but made clear the bloc still hoped to preserve it. 

“Full implementation of #NuclearDeal by all is now more important than ever, for regional stability & global security,” Mr Borrell tweeted. “I will continue working with all participants on way forward.” 

Mr Borrell has invited Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, for talks in Brussels. Tehran has not yet responded to the move.