Mark Esper attacks Iran's malign regional influence and support for militia attacks

US Defence Secretary said Tehran is 'inching' to the negotiating table under maximum pressure policy

epa07821849 US Secretary of Defence, Dr Mark T. Esper speaks at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, Britain, 06 September 2019. Dr Esper speech addressed a number of key international defence and security challenges, including the importance of the critical transatlantic relationship between the two countries.  EPA/FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA
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Mark Esper, the US defence secretary, warned Friday that Iran posed a "rampant" threat to the Middle East by supporting and inspiring militia forces that are waging hostile attacks on countries across the region.

Speaking in support of Washington's policy of "maximum pressure" on the Iranian regime to reign in its allies and militia forces, Mr Esper used an appearance in London to condemn the "bigger challenge" that Iran posed to regional security.

"Iran is rampant in terms of its militias malign behaviour throughout the region and they are undermining any number of governments," he told an invited audience at the Royal United Services Institute in London. "In many cases, Iran is supporting, inspiring many of those forces in the region.

"Iran is supporting the Houthi rebels and the Houthi rebels are everyday shooting missiles north," he added. "They are funding militias militias in Iraq and into Syria and all the way across into Lebanon."

Mr Esper said Washington's maximum pressure approach was designed to bring Iran back to the negotiating table to address the weaknesses in the 2015 nuclear deal in permanently preventing the country acquiring nuclear weapons, not just over a 10-15 year timeframe. A new agreement would also encompass its missile technologies and proliferation activity and meddling in its neighbours. He said his message to European allies still wedded to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was that Tehran's "malign behaviour was just terrible" to all regional countries.

President Donald Trump has left the door open to a possible meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the upcoming UN General Assembly in New York.

"It seems in some ways that Iran is inching toward that place where we could have talks and hopefully it'll play out that way," Mr Esper said. "The use of maximum pressure is to bring Iran back to the negotiating table where we can pursue a new JCPOA."

Asked about the possibility of a wider regional security conference to address the differences, he said any future talks would have to centre on Iranian policies. "The fundamental challenge for the region is Iran and Iran not behaving like a normal country and abiding by the rules of international law and norms of behaviour, " he said.

FILE - In this May 31, 2019, file photo, Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces march as they hold Popular Mobilization flags in Baghdad, Iraq. Iraq's government is moving to limit the influence of powerfully Iran-backed militias in the country, placing them under the full command of the Iraqi armed forces. In a decree issued Monday night, Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi says militias says militia offices who continue to operate independently will be closed and any armed faction working "openly or secretly" against these guidelines will be considered illegitimate. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed, File)
The Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces march with flags in Baghdad, Iraq. The US Defence secretary has called on 'maxmimum pressure' on Tehran to reign in its allies and militia forces. Khalid Mohammed / AP

Friction between the two countries has grown since Trump last year withdrew from a 2015 international accord under which Iran had agreed to rein in its atomic program in exchange for relief from economic sanctions.

The new head of the American defence department also hit out at European countries that refusing to repatriate foreign fighters that left the continent to join Isis in Syria and Iraq. He said capital's must agree a mechanism to repatriate those captured on the battlefield. “It’s an untenable situation,” he said. “How long can this last? Our view has been they should repatriated and dealt with appropriately … otherwise that’s a risk to the region.”

Mr Esper moves on to Paris from London where he and his French counterpart will discuss on Saturday how France's navy could coordinate with Washington to ensure freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz.

"We recognise that France has an interest in participating in freedom of navigation, bringing freedom of navigation capabilities to the Gulf and we will be looking to find ways to harness and use that interest to better coordinate with our own initiative," the official told reporters in a conference call ahead of Esper's meeting with Florence Parly in Paris.

France has ruled out joining the US-led coalition of countries protecting oil tankers and cargo ships from threats posed by Iran in the Strait of Hormuz, but has pushed for a European supplementary maritime operation.