Mon, 20 May 2019

STATE DEPARTMENT - Iran is on the agenda Tuesday as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Sochi, Russia.

Lavrov said he expected a 'sincere conversation' with Pompeo, including trying to find out how the Trump administration planned to resolve tensions with Iran, which Lavrov said the U.S. side created on its own.

Ahead of the meeting, State Department Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook told reporters Iran 'plays a destabilizing role in Syria' and that Iran using Syria 'as a missile platform to advance its foreign policy objectives' goes against Russian goals of bringing stability to the Syria.

Russian forces have been aiding the Syrian military since 2015, while Iran has been a major backer of President Bashar al-Assad, giving support and training to Shi'ite militias.

Tuesday's Sochi meeting comes after Pompeo shared intelligence and details with European allies about what the United States calls Iran's recent 'escalating threat,' blaming Tehran for failing to choose talks over threats.

'The secretary wanted to share some detail behind what we have been saying publicly. We believe that Iran should try talks instead of threats. They have chosen poorly by focusing on threats,' Hook said.

Top officials from the European Union are calling on the United States to use 'maximum restraint' and avoid military escalation with Iran.

'[U.S. Secretary of State] Mike Pompeo heard very clearly from us -- not only from myself but also from the other ministers of EU member states -- that we are living in a crucial, delicate moment where the most relevant attitude to take -- the most responsible attitude to take -- is and we believe should be that of maximum restraint and avoiding any escalation of the military side,' Federica Mogherini, the European Union's foreign policy chief, said Monday in Brussels.

Mogherini, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and foreign ministers from Britain, France and Germany spoke with Pompeo after he canceled a stop in Moscow.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Monday the United States has been unnecessarily escalating the situation.

'We do not seek escalation, but we have always defended ourselves,' he said.

UAE claim

Pompeo also discussed while in Brussels reported attacks on several oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, said Hook, who declined to comment when asked if the United States believes Iran is behind those attacks.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) said Sunday that four commercial vessels were sabotaged near Fujairah emirate. Monday, Saudi Arabia said two of its oil tankers were among those attacked and described it as an attempt to undermine the security of crude supplies amid tensions between the United States and Iran.

'We discussed what seemed to be attacks on commercial vessels that were anchored off of Fujairah,' Hook said. 'We have been requested by the UAE to provide assistance in the investigation, which we are very glad to do.'

Iran nuclear deal

Britain, France and Germany also voiced new support on Monday for the international pact to curb Iran's nuclear weapons program.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt called for 'a period of calm.'

'We are very worried about the risk of a conflict happening by accident with an escalation that is unintended on either side but ends with some kind of conflict,' Hunt said.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Berlin 'still regards this nuclear agreement as the basis for Iran not having any nuclear weapons in the future and we regard this as existential for our security.' He said Germany is 'concerned about the development and the tensions in the region, that we do not want there to be a military escalation.'

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the U.S. move to increase sanctions against Iran to curb its international oil trade 'does not suit us.'

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned last week that Tehran could resume uranium enrichment at a higher grade if the European powers, China and Russia did not develop a plan to thwart punitive U.S. sanctions on Iran's banking and energy sectors.

The United States, which withdrew from the 2015 international deal to curtail Iran's nuclear ambitions, has moved the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier strike group and four B-52 bombers to the Middle East region, in response to concerns Iran may be planning an attack against American targets. The Pentagon announced on Friday its intent to move additional firepower into the Middle East, including the USS Arlington and a Patriot missile battery.

Pompeo's trip comes a few weeks ahead of a Group of 20 summit meeting in Osaka, Japan, with both Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump expected to attend. Trump said on Monday that he will meet with Putin on the sidelines of G-20 summit.

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