Amid Sharpening US-Iran Conflict, Europeans Try Diplomacy


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PARIS - European Union foreign ministers meet later this week on the escalating crisis between Iran and the United States, but EU executives already have set the tone, calling Wednesday for dialogue and salvaging the Iran nuclear deal.

Speaking from Brussels, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the use of weapons in the Middle East must stop.

"We are called upon to do everything possible to rekindle talks," she said. "There cannot be enough of that."

In many ways, Europe is caught in the crossfire of the mounting tensions. It has condemned Iran's missile attacks in Iraq, and offered cautious support of the U.S. strike that killed top Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani - but it also urged restraint on both sides.

As part of the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State, experts say, Europeans are worried about the fallout. Germany is moving troops out of Iraq. At the same time, the Europeans strongly support the Iran nuclear agreement that President Donald Trump withdrew from two years ago, and are urging Iran to stick to it.

"I think they [Europeans] are stuck between a rock and a hard place," said Julien Barnes-Dacey, Middle East program director at the European Council on Foreign Relations. "On the one hand, they do not want to create transatlantic divisions, whatever their frustrations with President Trump. And they also have significant issues with the way Iran has conducted itself in the region."

Europe has many reasons for concern, said Iran expert Guillaume Xavier-Bender of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. It is a lot closer to the Middle East than the United States, making it more vulnerable to potential missile strikes and other effects of any widening conflict - from a resurgent Islamic State, to impacts on its trade and oil imports.

"Europeans have no interest in anything that would continue the escalation in the region, that's why its priority is de-escalation," Xavier-Bender said.

In response, the European Union is offering what some analysts say is critical - diplomacy and mediation.

"Europeans have been on the phone since this last week with everyone in the region - with the U.S., with Iran, with Israel, with Saudi Arabia - saying 'calm things down.' Even with the Chinese and the Russians," Xavier-Bender said.

One example of the EU's potential mediation came this week. Washington denied Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif a visa to attend a U.N. meeting, while the EU, by contrast, invited him for talks in Brussels. So far, it's unclear when that will happen.