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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 February 2019

US policy being made at random say diplomats who warn Trump is increasing security risks for Europe

Rift with Trump administration deepening after US pullout from Syria and criticism of Warsaw summit

US President Donald Trump pauses during a rally at El Paso County Coliseum, Texas. Reuters
US President Donald Trump pauses during a rally at El Paso County Coliseum, Texas. Reuters

An inconsistent US foreign policy and erratic decision-making by the Trump administration has increased the security risks faced by France, Germany and Britain, top diplomats have told The National, in remarks that illustrate that the long-standing Transatlantic alliance is under growing pressure.

The announced withdrawal of US troops from Syria, despite ISIS continuing to pose a threat, is adding to frustrations about what they say is wanton disregard about European interests, with policy made on the fly in Washington opening up new dangers for mainland Europe.

The impact of a potential war between Israel and Iran and the fallout of a second refugee crisis that would likely follow are among the scenarios being envisaged by diplomats at the United Nations, who admitted they are struggling to reconcile American policy with their own.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, officials from all three countries criticised Wednesday's summit convened in Warsaw by US Secretary Mike Pompeo, with one describing it as “an unhelpful sideshow announced without any consultation or regard for America's traditional partners”.

The State Department originally promoted the gathering as an effort to coalesce security efforts in the Middle East, particularly against Iran's destabilising activities in the region. Criticism from the EU that the summit was an “anti-Iran” meeting, and after a struggle to attract top representation, US officials have scrambled in the past fortnight to broaden the agenda. In a sign of the unease felt by Britain, officials originally said only a junior minister would attend. However, after two weeks of delay Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt agreed to join the summit after a discussion about the war in Yemen was added to the agenda.

“It's a series of chaotic decisions being made at random,” said one European official based at the UN, referring to the Warsaw summit.

“The US had one meeting with the Poles and decided that they'd hold a ministerial [gathering]. They didn't ask anyone else if they would come. It's a classic example of their lack of thinking things through.”

Another European diplomat said: “We disagree about this conference. It's not how things should be done.”

The decision of President Donald Trump to unilaterally withdraw the US from the Iran nuclear deal last year has caused a rift in the European alliance with Washington.

In comments that cast new light on how the long-anticipated move was presented to France, Germany and Britain by the US, another European official described how it had hardened his country's resolve to stay in the Iran accord.

“It is quite significant that we have broken apart on this issue,” he said. “We had lengthy discussions with the US and we were basically offered a plan that was not a plan, and which was something that left us within the strike range of Iranian missiles. The US had a plan of maximum pressure that we did not agree with. Our security interests were not addressed seriously.”

All three European powers and the other two countries involved – China and Russia – have said they will honour the nuclear agreement, struck in 2015 during the Obama administration, as long as Iran fulfils its obligations, as the International Atomic Energy Agency says it has so far.

In a concrete measure of the split with the US, Britain, France and Germany in January announced the launch of INSTEX, a payments mechanism specifically designed to allow European companies trading with Iran to circumvent sanctions imposed by the Trump administration.

The French, German and British officials told The National that while they are in agreement with the US about the need to constrain Iran's ballistic missile programme it can probably only be done by new measures, rather than the current UN resolution 2231 which is tied to the nuclear deal.

“Their position is incoherent,” one European diplomat said of the US. “They pulled out of the agreement but they want to use something tied to it to get what they want regarding the missile programme. It doesn't work that way.”

Concern about US policy is broader than the nuclear deal. One official pointed to the apparent unanimity between the Trump administration and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a security risk, saying it was increasing the chances of a war between Iran and Israel.

Mr Netanyahu, who has previously threatened to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities, will attend the Warsaw summit.

The pullout of American troops from Syria removed one of the few ways in which Western forces could limit Iran's reach there. “Syria is the big prize for Iran, forget anywhere else. The American decision, frankly, was disadvantageous,” one European official said.

“We approach Iran as a problem that has been around for a long time and will continue to be around for a long time. The current US administration looks at this differently.”

Mike Pompeo, U.S. secretary of state, shakes hands with Peter Szijjarto, Hungary's foreign minister, right, during a news conference in Budapest, Hungary, on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2019. In a sign that the U.S. policy toward Hungary is switching gears, Pompeo is scheduled to meet with civil society leaders in Budapest before seeing local officials and will also announce a new program to support independent media in central Europe. Photographer: Akos Stiller/Bloomberg
Mike Pompeo shakes hands with Peter Szijjarto, Hungary's foreign minister, after arriving in Hungary’s Budapest on Tuesday. Bloomberg

But as the summit looms, the US administration is trying to sound more inclusive of their European partners. A senior State Department official in a briefing on Friday told reporters that Mr Pompeo's trip to Budapest and Warsaw was part of an overdue effort by the US to be more active in central Europe, as well as to "get a cross-section of global leadership on issues relating to the Middle East".

"We are trying to address the previous lack of US engagement," the official said, referring to the Hungary part of the secretary of state's tour. The official noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin had visited Budapest twice in the last year. "We have to show up or expect to lose."

Regarding Iran and the two-day meeting in Warsaw, he said: "There will be discussions about Iranian influence in the Middle East and what can be done to get it on a more useful footing."

Richard Nephew, an Iran specialist at the State Department during the George W Bush era and the deputy principal negotiator for sanctions policy under president Barack Obama, said it was significant that the UK, France and Germany felt the Warsaw conference was a mistake.

“If you had to pick a government that wants to stay close to Trump then it's the UK government. And even they, with Jeremy Hunt, made the decision at the last minute after trying to wriggle out of it for two weeks,” he said.

“This is why the Trump administration's strategy is a shambles right now. If they don't have Iran collapse in the next few weeks they don't have a plan. Their plan is essentially one event after another without stringing anything together. And that's a big problem.”

Updated: February 12, 2019 12:37 PM

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