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Germany urges EU unity at Middle East crisis meeting

January 10, 2020

Fearing war on their doorstep, EU foreign ministers have agreed to find ways to defuse tensions between the US and Iran. They also focused on conflicts in the wider region and again sought to salvage Iran's nuclear deal.

Ursula vond er Leyen, Josep Borrell
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/XinHua

Foreign ministers from the European Union's 28 member-states gathered in Brussels on Friday afternoon for a rare emergency meeting following recent days of turmoil in the Middle East and Libya.

The talks came a week after the US killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in an airstrike in Iraq, prompting a retaliatory response from Iran and sparking concerns about an all-out conflict.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said "the immediate danger of war" had been "averted for the time being," and called for a united European strategy to stop any further escalation.

Read moreGermany, Russia see goals align amid tension in Middle East

He said EU states had played an important role in helping calm the situation, and that efforts must continue to prevent Iraq from becoming "the stage for a war between the US and Iran" and to avoid the successes against the self-styled "Islamic State" (IS) from being undone.

"The current end to the fight against IS in Iraq would significantly destabilize the country and create new opportunities for IS," Maas said, adding that this could mean more attacks in Iraq, and "also in Europe."

"Europeans have invested heavily in Iraq, in terms of security policy, but also ... with humanitarian aid, stabilization and reconstruction. This must not be lost," he said. 

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg also warned ministers in Brussels that IS could return: "We need to understand that the fight against Daesh is not over," he said, referring to the group by an alternative name.

US-Iran tensions

Although both Washington and Tehran appeared to have backed down from escalating the conflict, the EU also wants to avoid a nuclear proliferation crisis on its doorstep. The bloc's foreign ministers in Brussels reiterated their commitment to salvaging a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, and called on Tehran to respect the terms of the pact.

Iran nuclear deal

Maas said the Iran nuclear deal was still relevant, despite Tehran's recent decision to ignore uranium enrichment limits, and that Europe still wanted the JCPOA accord "to have a future."

The EU's top diplomat, Josep Borrell, urged Iran to return "to full compliance without delay," while Lithuania's Linas Linkevicius said that without a significant change, "it will be difficult to believe that this agreement could be alive."

Maas also appealed to Iran to ensure that Wednesday's Ukrainian airliner crash near Tehran was properly investigated. Iranian officials have said the flight encountered a technical malfunction, but a number of Western countries, including the US and Canada, say intelligence suggests the aircraft was shot down by an Iranian missile.

"It is important now that this is fully explained. There are positive signals Iran is involving other countries in clarifying what happened," Maas said.

"This cannot be hidden under the table. If that were to happen then it would breed new mistrust and that is the last thing we need now."

Read more: Why the US and Iran are not at war

His Dutch counterpart, Stef Blok, echoed the plea for transparency, saying it was "very likely" an Iranian missile caused the crash.

Pressure to save nuclear deal

US President Donald Trump unilaterally pulled out of the nuclear deal with Iran in 2018 and this week urged European powers to follow suit.

On Monday, Iran announced it would no longer abide by the limits of the deal, placing European powers in a difficult situation.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told RTL radio on Friday morning that if Iran continues to violate the deal, Tehran could create a nuclear weapon within "one or two years."

Germany, France, the UK and the European Union have threatened to invoke the pact's dispute resolution mechanism over Iran's violation. But an EU diplomat said ministers at the Brussels meeting did not discuss that option over concerns it could be "seen as an escalatory measure." 

The move would start the clock on a 30-day period to resolve the problem. Should that fail, the issue could then be brought before the UN Security Council and could result in the resumption of economic sanctions that were part of the deal.

Fellow signatories Russia and China oppose triggering the dispute procedure.

German firms' Iran business hit by sanctions

Libya conflict 'one of biggest on world stage'

Concerns over the spiraling conflict in Libya were also high on the agenda, after the EU condemned Turkey's decision to interfere in the conflict.

Germany has warned that the situation could become "a second Syria," and pushed for a cease-fire in the northern African country.

Jürgen Hardt, the foreign policy speaker in German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) told DW that the situation in Libya is "one of the biggest conflicts on the world stage."

Turkey began sending troops to Libya over the weekend to back the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA).

Although Russia has not officially made its loyalties in the Libyan conflict clear, there have been reports of Russian mercenaries fighting on the side of ex-general Khalifa Haftar, whose forces seized the port city of Sirte on Monday.

The EU has been trying to contain the crisis amid concerns about migration to Europe and terrorism. 

nm,rs/msh (dpa, Reuters, AP)

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