US differences with Europe get full airing at Munich meet

Vice President Mike Pence presses for traditional US ally to abandon Iran nuclear deal

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America lambasted Europe's divergence with US foreign policy at a high-profile security conference on Saturday as Mike Pence, the vice president, demanded its withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.

Mr Pence painted a dark picture of European allies that were undermining US sanctions targeting the Tehran regime and thus buoying a regime intent on “evil” through a “new holocaust".

“It is time for our European partners to stop undermining the US and stand with the Iranian people,” he declared. “The time has come for our European partners to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.”

“Anti-Semitism is not only wrong, it is evil and must be confronted whenever and wherever it rises. It must be universally condemned,” he said at the Munich Security Conference. “The Iranian regime openly advocates another Holocaust and seeks the means by which to achieve it."

Just minutes before, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel openly raised Berlin’s difficulties with the US in her address to the conference. While Mr Pence said the announced US withdrawal from Syria was a tactical shift, Mrs Merkel questioned where the overall US strategy was going.

"Is it a good idea for the Americans to suddenly and quickly withdraw from Syria? Or will it once more strengthen the capacity of Iran and Russia to exert their influence?" Mrs Merkel asked.

We cannot ensure the defence of the West if our partners are dependent on the East

Speaking at the conference, Patrick Shanahan, the acting US secretary of defence, had indicated that Washington sought allied military support for a buffer zone in Syria based on the positions of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) following the American pullout.

He said the battle against ISIS had changed, not ended, and that outside commitment was still needed.

“While the time for US troops on the ground in north-east Syria winds down, the US remains committed to our coalition’s cause – the permanent defeat of ISIS,” Mr Shanahan said. “I, for one, envision an even bigger and stronger coalition going forward.”

On Afghanistan, where Germany has forces, Mrs Merkel said there was a need to ensure there was not a rushed departure from Kabul either, even as she acknowledged German weariness with the conflict. “We have to convince our population that our security is defended by being in the Hindu Kush,” she said.

Calling for greater dialogue before announcing policy shifts, Mrs Merkel explained Europe was often bewildered by the US. “We need to come to the table to talk about issues,” she said. "It is not entirely easy for me as German chancellor to read that apparently the American commerce department says German, European cars are a threat to national security. If that is viewed as a security threat to the United States, then we are shocked," she said.

It was not just on Iran that Mr Pence set out a hard message. Nato countries that were failing to spend enough on defence must come up with a “credible plan” to raise expenditure, he said, and by 2024 raise the proportion of the budget spent on defence procurement to one-fifth of the overall outlay.

“We cannot ensure the defence of the West if our partners are dependent on the East,” he said. “We will not stand idly by while Nato allies purchase weapons from our adversaries.”

A US military official speaking on the sidelines of the conference said Nato member Turkey has until March to withdraw a purchase order for Russia’s S-400 air defence system. If Turkey presses ahead the US would stop a Patriot system transfer. In the circumstances it is likely Congress would veto a proposed order of F-35 fighters.

With President Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka looking on from the front row, Mr Pence added that his prohibitions included telecommunications networks from China, principally by Huawei.

"The United States has also been very clear with our security partners on the threat posed by Huawei and other Chinese telecom companies," he said. "We must protect our critical telecom infrastructure and America is calling on all our security partners to be vigilant.”

Hitting out at the American demands on Europe over installation of equipment from Huawei, Chinese state councillor Yang Jiechi called on Americans to show more self-confidence and more respect to the “so-called old world”.

In contrast, Mr Yang delivered a message of multilateralism. “There is a saying in China that one thread snaps but 10,000 threads woven together can pull a boat,” he said. “I believe the whole world should pull together.”

Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, noted tensions in the Euro-Atlantic relationship and, quoting General Charles de Gaulle and Helmut Kohl, called for a new focus on building pan-European co-operation. “The Europeans have allowed themselves to be dragged into a pointless confrontation with Russia,” he said.

Mr Lavrov responded dismissively to questions about a political resolution to the Syrian conflict. He also warned that the deal between Russia, Turkey and Iran to clear Idlib province would proceed.“There was an agreement that the military of Russia and Turkey, with the consent of the Syrian government, will try to establish a step-by-step approach,” he said. “We cannot tolerate forever this hotbed of terrorism.”

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