US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has cancelled the Moscow leg of an official visit to Russia, in order to attend an emergency meeting of European powers on Iran. While Britain, France and Germany remain publicly committed to the flawed 2015 nuclear deal that US President Donald Trump withdrew from a year ago, they now appear to be aware of the threat Iran poses. The Trump administration and its Gulf allies have long agreed that the nuclear deal does not tackle Tehran’s destabilising influence on the region, grimly visible in the actions of its proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and Syria. Nor did it halt Iran’s ballistic missile programme, which contravenes international law. With the regime ramping up its rhetoric, now is the time for Europe and the US to reach an agreement on how to proceed.
Tensions are sky high. On the anniversary of Mr Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement, and following a raft of punitive US sanctions that have decimated Iran’s oil output, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced that Tehran would pull out from some conditions of the nuclear deal. In response, European powers threatened sanctions of their own. In the past few days, Tehran has declared the US military presence in the Gulf a “target” and threatened to expel around three million Afghan refugees if sanctions are not lifted. Iran has repeatedly threatened the region’s waterways as a means of retaliation. From Hormuz to the Bab Al Mandeb strait, they are vital for the flow of international trade. The US might have dispatched forces to the Middle East amid “clear indications” of threats from Iran to American forces, but as Mr Pompeo said in an interview broadcast on Monday, “Our aim is not war”. It is encouraging that European powers appear to be joining the US and the Gulf in recognising the Iranian threat – even if they differ on how to tackle it. In such a febrile atmosphere, it is vital that all parties exercise restraint, because it is not just trade flows that are at stake, but the safety and security of us all.
All eyes are now on the Gulf of Oman, where around a fifth of the world’s oil passes and where an act of sabotage occurred on Sunday. The UAE has rightly been cautious in handling the situation, awaiting the results of an investigation. What we know is that two Saudi oil tankers – and two other vessels – were “sabotaged” off the coast of the Fujairah, suffering “significant damage”. While further details are yet to emerge about this worrying incident, cool heads must prevail, and proper measures should be taken to ensure that this situation does not spin out of control. Countries across the region have expressed their condemnation, while Abu Dhabi has called on world powers to keep maritime traffic safe. At this highly precarious moment, this message of caution must be heeded.