US takes aim at Iran on NATO sidelines

US Secretary of State moves to step up pressure on Iran, reassure allies about alternative oil supplies.
Wednesday 11/07/2018
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrives at Brussels Airport in Zaventem, Belgium, on July 10. (AP)
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrives at Brussels Airport in Zaventem, Belgium, on July 10. (AP)

LONDON - US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Brussels, where he plans meetings on the sidelines of the NATO summit aimed at stepping up pressure on Iran and reassuring allies about alternative oil supplies, a State Department official said.

Pompeo flew from Abu Dhabi, where he discussed Iran with leaders of the United Arab Emirates. Senior State Department officials have also completed three days of talks on Iran in Saudi Arabia, and "discussed new ways to deprive the regime of revenues," a State Department official told reporters traveling on Pompeo’s plane.

"In our meeting with the Saudi energy minister, we discussed maintaining a well-stocked oil market to guard against volatility," he said. "We discussed US oil sanctions to deny Iran revenue to fight against terrorism. We talked about minimizing market disruptions and helping partners find alternatives to Iran oil."

At NATO, Pompeo would discuss Iran with ministers from Britain, France and Germany, and in other bilateral meetings, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

He said a meeting with political directors of the so-called E-3 countries of France, Germany and Britain, who signed an international agreement on Iran that the Trump administration has withdrawn from, would now be held in Brussels on Wednesday or Thursday. He said it was postponed for a couple of days due to scheduling issues.

The United States pulled out of a multinational deal in May to lift sanctions against Iran in return for curbs to its nuclear program. Washington has since told countries they must halt all imports of Iranian oil from November 4 or face US financial measures, with no exemptions.

Since Trump's decision to withdraw from the agreement, European states have been scrambling to ensure Iran gets enough economic benefits to persuade it to maintain the nuclear curbs required in the deal.

But so far it has proven difficult to offset the impact of continued US sanctions, with European firms reluctant to risk far-reaching US financial penalties to do business in Iran.

"No matter how much people write about trans-Atlantic rifts, in the case of Iran we agree on much more than we disagree," the US official said. "The European nations are as frustrated as we are with Iran's missile program, the missile attacks that they are facilitating."

Iran accused of using embassies for terror plots

Pompeo accused Iran of using its embassies to plot terrorist attacks in Europe and warned Tehran that its actions have "a real high cost" after it threatened to disrupt Mideast oil supplies.

"Just this past week there were Iranians arrested in Europe who were preparing to conduct a terror plot in Paris, France. We have seen this malign behavior in Europe," Pompeo said in an interview with Sky News Arabia.

The US team at the talks in Saudi Arabia, led by State Department policy planning director Brian Hook, made a point of focusing on the arrest earlier this month of an Iranian diplomat posted to Vienna who was allegedly involved in the plot to bomb an Iranian opposition group rally in France on June 30, according to a senior US official.

The official was not authorized to discuss the meeting publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. The envoy's arrest in Germany came after a couple with Iranian roots was stopped in Belgium and authorities reported finding powerful explosives in their car.

Iran denies involvement and contends the allegations against its diplomat are intended to damage its relations with the European Union.

The US official said the administration takes the arrest of the diplomat "very seriously" and sees it as evidence that Iran is using diplomatic compounds in Europe and elsewhere as cover to plot terrorist attacks. The official dismissed Iranian suggestions that it was a "false flag" operation intended to falsely accuse Iran of terrorism.

In interviews, Pompeo stressed the desire of America and its Gulf Arab allies to turn the economic screws on Iran.

Pompeo said they seek to "deny Iran the financial capacity to continue this bad behavior" using a broad range of sanctions. He said the sanctions are not aimed at the Iranian people, but at "convincing the Iranian regime that its malign behavior is unacceptable and has a real high cost for them."

He mentioned recent threats by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who in Europe last week said any disruption to Iran's oil exports would result in the whole region's exports being disrupted. A third of all oil traded by sea passes through the Strait of Hormuz off Iran's coast.

Iran "should know that America is committed to keeping sea lines open, keeping the transit of oil available for the entire world," Pompeo told Sky News Arabia, a network half-owned by a member of Abu Dhabi's ruling family. "That's the commitment we have had for decades. We continue under that commitment."

In Tehran, Iran's deputy parliament speaker Ali Motahari praised Rouhani for making the threat.

"The Americans are not ready for any new war in the Persian Gulf so the president's remark was a good threat which will have positive impacts and will be a deterrent factor against cutting Iran's oil exports," Motahari said, according to a report on parliament's website.

Global oil prices have risen on the expectation that the United States will push its allies to stop importing Iranian crude oil, further tightening world energy supplies. While allies like Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait say they are willing to increase their own production as necessary, additional output may not be enough to satiate demand.

While State Department officials earlier acknowledged that some allies will get waivers to continue importing Iranian oil, Pompeo seemed to strike a harder line. He warned that such imports largely would be "sanctionable activity and we will enforce those sanctions."

"We will consider (waivers) but make no mistake about it: We are determined to convince the Iranian leadership that this malign behavior won't be rewarded and that the economic situation in the country will not be permitted to be rectified until such time that they become a more normal nation," he said.

US terror designation on Iran-linked group in Bahrain

The United States designated a Shia militant group in Bahrain as a foreign terrorist organization Tuesday to ramp up pressure on Iran.

The al-Ashtar Brigades are "yet another in a long line of Iranian-sponsored terrorists who kill on behalf of a corrupt regime," Nathan Sales, the coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department, said in a statement detailing the designation.

The militant group has been critical of a violent crackdown by Bahrain's Sunni-led government on a 2011 Shia-led uprising. It has since claimed responsibility for a number of bombings and attacks in Bahrain, including two that killed police.

The designation, which prohibits Americans or US companies from doing business with the group, is the latest Trump administration effort to increase pressure on Tehran after pulling out of the 2015 nuclear accord.

Iran supports a number of armed groups across the Middle East including Hezbollah in Lebanon, armed forces propping up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and powerful armed groups in Iraq.

The Trump administration has targeted the al-Ashtar Brigades with sanctions before. In March 2017, the State Department blacklisted two individuals affiliated with the group, Ahmad Hasan Yusuf and Alsayed Murtadha Majeed Ramadhan Alawi.

(The Arab Weekly and news agencies)