US killing of Iran's top commander rattles European allies

The US national flag waves in front of the US consulate in Frankfurt, Germany, Friday, Jan. 3, 2020.


By LOVEDAY MORRIS AND MICHAEL BIRNBAUM | The Washington Post | Published: January 3, 2020

BERLIN — European politicians on Friday warned of the potential for a violent blowback after the United States killed Iran's top military commander, a move they worried could also further strain a troubled transatlantic relationship and deal a death blow to the ailing Iran nuclear deal.

The British and German governments called for a de-escalation after the United States announced overnight that President Donald Trump had ordered the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran's elite Quds Force. He died in a drone strike in Baghdad alongside the powerful Iraqi militia commander Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi, better known by his assumed name, Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis.

German government deputy spokesperson Ulrike Demmer described said it marked a "dangerous escalation point." British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the United Kingdom had always recognized "the aggressive threat" posed by Soleimani but "further conflict is in none of our interests."

The Pentagon described the killing as a "defensive action" while Iran has vowed "severe revenge" following the killing.

Some U.S. allies were evidently alarmed by the potential for conflict in the region and against their own interests, urging citizens to leave Iraq or instating extra security measures for their troops in the country.

The strike on Soleimani adds to a long list of issues splitting Washington from its European allies. Europe and the United States have not seen eye-to-eye on the Trump administration's maximum pressure policy on Iran, which has included ramping up economic sanctions and withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal, which Europe has desperately tried to keep alive.

They also feel battered on a sweep of other issues ranging from trade to climate policy.

Nathalie Tocci, the director of the Rome-based Italian International Affairs Institute, said the strike against Soleimani was "irresponsible madness" that was likely to expose Europeans in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq, where Iran might aim its counterstrikes. Tocci said the fear was that American troops would have to abandon Iraq, leaving its allies exposed.

"We would have no cover any more," she said.

Tocci also said that the nuclear deal, which European countries have tried to preserve since the U.S. withdrawal, was likely to break apart. Even before the strike, Iran was considering new steps to breach the deal.

"We could well end up in a scenario where the Iranians not only increase enrichment, but may restrict the access to inspectors," said Tocci, who was an adviser to the European Union officials who negotiated the deal. They may even pull out of the [Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty] altogether."

"Europe was always subservient to U.S. policy and interests, and it's no different now," she said. "What is different now is that U.S. policy seems to be even more reckless than it was in 2003."

While there was consensus in Europe that the aftermath of the killing could unleash a host of unpredictable forces, European leaders were divided about what to do about it, a reflection of the deep frustrations that Trump has stoked in Washington's closest allies after three years in office.

"President Trump's decisions provoke global risks and his intentions remain unclear," wrote Donald Tusk, who was president of the European Council until November, on Twitter. Still, he said, Europe and the United States needed to "maintain transatlantic unity in the face of the approaching political earthquake," seemingly a reference to the Iranian reaction to Soleimani's death.

Tusk's successor, Charles Michel, who now speaks on behalf of the leaders of the 28 E.U. nations, said in a statement that "the cycle of violence, provocations and retaliations which we have witnessed In Iraq over the past few weeks has to stop. Further escalation must be avoided at all cost."

He said that the back and forth risked "a generalized flare up of violence in the whole region."

German officials avoided directly criticizing the U.S. move, pointing out provocative Iranian actions such as the attacks on tankers in the Straits of Hormuz and Saudi oil fields that European countries have joined the United States in blaming on Iran.

In recent days, U.S.-Iran tension had reached a new pitch as supporters of Iranian-backed militias in Iraq attacked the American embassy in Baghdad following a wave of U.S. airstrikes on militia positions in the country.

Jürgen Hardt, the foreign policy spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats said that Iran has "systematically expanded its destabilizing activities in the Middle East in recent years" and "exceeded a new escalation threshold" by backing violent protests at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

However, he said that it was "doubtful" that the decision to target Soleimani was well advised as it is unlikely to weaken Iran and could unleash a "new wave of violence."

European leaders - many of whom had to interrupt the last moments of their vacation on Friday to get updates about the situation - said they feared the strike could mark the final end to their struggling efforts to preserve the Iran nuclear deal. Trump pulled the United States out of the agreement in 2018, but Europeans stuck with it. Iran had not yet fully spurned its obligations under the accord, sometimes known by its acronym, the JCPOA. Europeans feel the effort to restrain Iran's nuclear enrichment program is central to their security strategy.

"I cannot imagine how the JCPOA can still be relevant," said one senior E.U. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss European concerns about the fallout from the strike. "There will be strong turbulence regionally and globally."

The diplomat said that one fear is that Iran could demand strong support from the E.U. against U.S. actions, and then walk away from the deal when that European backing failed to materialize. That diplomat and others said that ultimately, most European nations remain aligned with the U.S. view that Iran is a dangerous actor, and that if forced to choose between one side or the other, they would ultimately pick Washington.

But the diplomat said that splits could open inside Europe about how firmly to back U.S. actions. Hardt said that Germany would continue to back the JCPOA as it believes that there "isn't anything else on the table."

The policy of "maximum pressure" cannot succeed without the support of Russia and China, he said.

"The JCPOA has been dead for weeks, but nobody can publicly admit it," said Markus Kaim, a security expert with the German Marshall Fund. The strike on Soleimani leaves "no common ground for a common transatlantic approach" to containing Iran, he said.

Iran was already expected to be days away from announcing fresh reductions in its compliance with the nuclear deal, and Europeans have been growing deeply frustrated by Tehran's violations. If Iran decides to use the moment to start a sharp escalation in its nuclear enrichment, E.U. leaders will likely feel compelled to trigger a formal mechanism in the agreement that would lead to the reimposition of European sanctions against Iran.

Major additional Iranian violations of the deal "would push the Europeans, whether they like it or not, towards a harder stance on Iran, which might ultimately lead to more alignment with Washington," said Luigi Scazzieri, a research fellow at the Center for European Reform, a London-based think tank.

But that alignment still wouldn't mean U.S. and European strategies about containing Iran's threat would suddenly be in lockstep, Scazzieri said, since Trump still has a sharply different view of foreign policy from most European leaders. And European leaders will likely have to give up the idea that they can shape events in the Middle East in a way that would help them safely ride out Trump's time in office, he said.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke by phone on Friday to his counterparts in London and Berlin, as well as a senior Chinese diplomat, to brief them on the U.S. decision to strike Soleimani, he said on Twitter.

Other former officials who had been deeply involved in efforts to prevent war from erupting between Iran and the United States said they were fearful the space for mediation was quickly evaporating.

"An extremely dangerous escalation in the #MiddleEast. Hope that those who still believe in wisdom and rationality will prevail, that some of the diplomatic achievements of the past will be preserved, and that a major scale confrontation will be avoided," wrote former E.U. foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, on Twitter.

"Now the scope for diplomacy is probably extremely limited," tweeted former Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt.

On Friday, European governments warned their citizens to be watchful. France told its citizens in Iran to be careful of demonstrations and to stay inconspicuous. Others said they feared potential reprisals. It was unclear whether any U.S. allies were informed of the U.S. plans, given the increased security risk to their own personnel and assets in the region if Iran retaliates. Several European diplomats said they were not aware of any U.S. warning to allies in advance of the strike.

Christina Routsi, a spokeswoman for the German ministry of defense, said that 130 German military personnel in Iraq training Iraqi forces had been confined to their bases in Taji and Baghdad.

The E.U.'s Brussels-based conclave of security-focused ambassadors planned to meet next week to discuss how to respond to the attack, according to one diplomat with knowledge of the plans.


Birnbaum reported from Brussels. The Washington Post's Chico Harlan in Rome, William Booth in London and Luisa Beck in Berlin contributed to this report.