WASHINGTON – United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called off a trip to Russia and instead made an unscheduled visit to Brussels on Monday to hold talks with European Union officials on Iran amid renewed tensions in the Middle East, officials said.
Pompeo, who had been programmed to head to Russia, landed in Brussels to discuss pressing issues with EU diplomats, an official from the State Department said.
The visit came as the US warned of heightened tensions in the region and Pompeo sought to have talks with top diplomats from the United Kingdom, Germany and France, the State Department said.
UK Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt spoke in Brussels of the dangers of an accidentally-triggered conflict between the US and Iran over the unraveling of the 2015 nuclear pact signed by Iran, Russia, China, the EU, the UK, France, Germany and the US.
Washington withdrew from the multilateral pact a year ago.
“We are very worried about the risk of a conflict happening by accident with an escalation that is unintended,” Hunt said it was important not to push Iran back towards re-nuclearization.
Pompeo was expected to talk with European counterparts about the status of the agreement which Washington has walked away from.
EU sources confirmed to EFE that Pompeo was not to take part in discussions within the European Council although he was considering the possibility of holding several meetings on is margins.
Pompeo had been due to meet US embassy staff in Russia, American business leaders and alumni of an exchange program, and take part in a ceremony to honor those who died fighting against Nazi Germany in World War II.
All those events were canceled to make room for the trip to Brussels, from where Pompeo was still expected to travel to the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
There he was due to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to discuss several issues: the challenges in the relationship between the two countries, arms control policies and the situation in Ukraine, Venezuela, Iran, Syria and North Korea.
Pompeo’s visit will be his first as a top diplomat and comes amid strains between Washington and Moscow.
The talks will be the most important since July 2018, when President Donald Trump and Putin held a meeting in Finland.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, speaking through the Interfax news agency, said that his government believed “the resolution of problems hindering the extension of the bilateral New START for another five years should be the primary objective.”
He added that the talks with Pompeo could serve to “stabilize” bilateral relations and resume a “substantial” dialogue on arms control in the midst of uncertainty about the end of the first Cold War disarmament treaty.
“The first visit of the Secretary of State to Russia is very important and we will try to make the most of the upcoming talks to stabilize our dialogue as much as possible and plan the next steps,” Ryabkov said.
Pompeo’s unexpected visit to Brussels comes at a delicate time for the 2015 nuclear pact.
On May 8, exactly a year after the US withdrew from the agreement, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced that the country was reducing its own commitments under the agreement, signed in Vienna in 2015 in order to prevent the country from building nuclear weapons.
Rouhani also gave a 60-day deadline to the pact’s remaining signatories to fulfill Iran’s demands and save the country’s banking system and oil trade from international sanctions.
The EU has taken a number of measures to counter the sanctions imposed by the US last year to isolate Iran economically.
With the aim of stepping up pressure on Iran, the administration of Trump on May 8 imposed sanctions on Iran’s iron, steel, aluminum and copper sectors, in addition to those applied on several sectors last year, including banking and oil.
Trump abandoned the nuclear pact despite other signatories expressing their commitment to it and despite the International Atomic Energy Agency certifying on 14 occasions that Iran was continuing to comply with its commitments under the agreement.