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Iran’s Rouhani threatens European troops amid nuclear pressure

President of Iran Hassan Rouhani, April 4, 2018. (Kremlin.ru/Released)

Iran’s president issued a warning on Wednesday that European forces in the Middle East could be at risk if their nations joined the US pressure campaign against his country and challenged Tehran over breaking the limits of a 2015 nuclear deal.

“Today, the American soldier is in danger, tomorrow the European soldier could be in danger,” president Hassan Rouhani said at a Cabinet meeting without elaborating.

Meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif acknowledged on Wednesday during a summit in New Delhi that Iranians “were lied to” for days following the accidental shoot down of a Ukrainian jetliner that killed 176 people.

Rouhani’s remarks represent the first direct threat he has made to Europe, while Zarif’s admission represents the first time an Iranian official referred to earlier claims from Tehran that a technical malfunction downed the Ukraine International Airlines flight as a lie.

The shoot down — and subsequent days of denials that a missile had downed it — sparked days of angry protests in the country.

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The UK, France and Germany have spent several months trying to preserve the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action after US President Donald Trump unilaterally abandoned it in 2018.

But on Tuesday, amid rising tensions between Tehran and Washington, the European Union initiated a dispute resolution mechanism to try to bring Iran back into compliance after it began openly breaching some restrictions last summer.

Iran says it should not be bound to the agreement following a Jan. 3 US airstrike in Iraq killed Iran’s top commander — General Qassem Soleimani — especially considering the US has since reimposed crippling sanctions after Iran fired missile at US troops based in Iraq.

After Soleimani’s killing, Iran said it would no longer abide by any of the nuclear deal’s limits, which had been designed to stop Iran obtaining enough material to be able to build an atomic bomb if it chose.

However, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog would still be allowed access to Iranian nuclear sites, Rouhani said and on Wednesday he reiterated a long-time Iranian pledge that the regime does not seek to build a bomb.

The decision by European nations to trigger the dispute mechanism now starts a process that could result in starting the clock on a process that could result in the “snapback” of UN and EU sanctions on Iran.

UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab told parliament on Tuesday that the European nations felt compelled to act, despite objections from Russia and China, because every violation of the deal reduces the so-called “breakout time” Iran needs to produce a nuclear bomb. Under the deal’s limits, experts believed Iran needed a year to be able to have enough material for a weapon.

European countries have troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, where they mainly operate alongside much larger US deployments.

European troops based in Iraq

Britain, France and Germany are all part of the US-led coalition that is fighting Daesh. The UK has about 400 troops based in Iraq while Germany has nearly 450 troops deployed to counter Daesh and to train Iraqi forces.

Germany “temporarily” withdrew 35 of its troops from Iraq after Soleimani. Most were flown to Jordan, where Germany also has troops involved in reconnaissance and refueling flights for the anti-Daesh coalition. France has about 1,000 troops in the region to help combat Daesh in Iraq and Syria.

The EU as a bloc has several dozen personnel in Baghdad working on security sector reform and advising the Interior Ministry. European Commission spokesman Peter Stano said officials are aware of the threats, but that “we, as the EU, are not leaving Iraq.”

The Gulf

The UK operates a naval base in Bahrain that can house up to 500 British military personnel and is focused on maritime security. It also has a joint training base in Oman. France has a naval base known as Camp Peace in Abu Dhabi’s Port Zayed, which houses some 700 French troops. Britain and France also station troops at US bases in the region.

Lebanon

Several European countries contribute forces to the UN peacekeeping mission in southern Lebanon, which patrols the tense frontier between Israel and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militant group. France contributes about 700 troops. Germany provides more than 100 forces to the peacekeepers’ maritime mission.

Afghanistan

The NATO mission in Afghanistan consists of about 17,000 troops from 39 allied and partner countries. The alliance formally concluded its combat mission at the end of 2014 and provides advice and training to Afghan forces. Britain has nearly 1,000 troops in Afghanistan and Germany has about 1,100.

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© 2020 the Arab News