Pompeo in Mideast talks on building a coalition against Iran

AYA BATRAWY
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US Pompeo

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to the media at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Sunday, June 23, 2019, before boarding a plane headed to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held talks Monday with leaders in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates about countering the military threat from Iran by building a broad, global coalition that includes Asian and European countries.

While Pompeo has seemingly willing and wealthy partners in the two Arab allies, he is likely to face a tough sell in Europe and Asia, particularly from those nations still committed to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran that President Donald Trump repudiated last year.

With tensions running high in the region after Iran shot down a U.S. surveillance drone on June 20 and Trump said he aborted a retaliatory strike, Iran's naval commander warned that his forces won't hesitate to down more U.S. drones that violate its airspace. The U.S. has been building up its military presence in the Persian Gulf.

The U.S. announced additional sanctions Monday on Iran aimed at pressuring the Iranian leadership into talks. The sanctions, re-imposed after Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal, have crippled the Iranian economy and pushed up the cost of living. Iran has decried U.S. sanctions, which essentially bar it from selling its oil internationally, as "economic terrorism."

At the United Nations, Iran's ambassador said talks with the U.S. were impossible in the face of escalating sanctions and intimidation. Ambassador Majid Takht Ravanchi said the Trump administration should de-escalate tensions by stopping "its military adventurism" in the region and moving away from "economic warfare against the Iranian people."

After departing Saudi Arabia, where he met King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Pompeo met in the UAE with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed to sell the Trump administration's idea for maritime security in the Persian Gulf. The plan would involve the UAE, Saudi Arabia and another 20 countries, Pompeo was heard telling the Abu Dhabi prince.

"We'll need you all to participate, your military folks," Pompeo told the Abu Dhabi prince in the presence of some reporters traveling with him. "The president is keen on sharing that the United States doesn't bear the cost of this."

While in Saudi Arabia earlier, Pompeo tweeted that he'd had a "productive meeting" with the Saudi monarch and discussed "heightened tensions in the region and the need to promote maritime security" in the Strait of Hormuz.

Pompeo, considered a hard-liner in Washington, referred to Iran as "the world's largest state sponsor of terror" before he embarked on the hastily arranged Middle East stops en route to India, Japan and South Korea.

He said he'd be speaking with leaders in Saudi Arabia and the UAE "about how to make sure that we are all strategically aligned, and how we can build out a global coalition ... not only throughout the Gulf states, but in Asia and in Europe" that is prepared to push back against Iran.

But Germany, France and Britain, as well as Russia and China, remain part of the nuclear accord that lifted sanctions on Iran in exchange for set limits on its uranium enrichment levels. Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal last year.

Germany, Britain and France have sent envoys to Tehran recently, signaling they remain committed to diplomacy and dialogue. They cautioned against moves that can lead to conflict between the U.S. and Iran.

Berlin appears cool toward U.S. talk of a global coalition against Iran as it tries to salvage the nuclear deal. German media have drawn parallels between Pompeo's talk of a coalition and President George W. Bush's "coalition of the willing" against Iraq in 2003, which Germany and France opposed.

German Foreign Ministry spokesman Christofer Burger said his country had "taken note via the media" of Pompeo's comments and that Germany's "top aim is and remains a de-escalation of the serious situation."

On Monday, Trump tweeted that China and Japan depend on the security of the Persian Gulf waterways for the bulk of their oil imports, and he asked why the U.S. is protecting the shipping lanes for other countries "for zero compensation."

"All of these countries should be protecting their own ships on what has always been a dangerous journey." He said the U.S. doesn't "even need to be there" because it produces much of its own energy needs.

Brian Hook, the U.S. special envoy for Iran, said one option could be to "enhance" an existing multinational maritime force of about 30 countries that currently fights drug and arms smuggling in the region.

Alternatively, he said allied nations with commercial interests in the oil-rich region could launch an all-new maritime security initiative.

Another option could be military ships patrolling the Gulf waters and equipped with surveillance equipment to keep watch on Iran.

The narrow Strait of Hormuz, which lies between Iran and Oman and opens to the Persian Gulf, is paramount for Asian oil importers. An estimated 18 million to 20 million barrels of oil — much of it crude — pass through the strait every day.

The U.S. Navy, which has its 5th Fleet based in Bahrain to protect the strait, escorted oil tankers to ensure American energy supplies in the 1980s when Iran and Iraq were targeting each other's exports, but the U.S. is no longer as reliant on Arabian producers.

Today, any conflict that threatens tankers would badly disrupt crude supplies for energy-hungry countries like China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Indonesia, which are among the top five importers of Arabian oil.

Pompeo's Mideast stops may also be aimed at reassuring Washington's Sunni Gulf Arab allies that the White House remains committed to keeping pressure on Shiite Iran following Trump's decision against retaliation, which likely raised questions about U.S. willingness to use force against the Islamic Republic. On a visit to Israel on Sunday, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton, also considered a U.S. hard-liner, said Iran should not "mistake U.S. prudence and discretion for weakness."

Iran's naval commander, Rear Adm. Hossein Khanzadi, declared that Tehran is capable of shooting down other American spy drones that violate its airspace, saying "the crushing response can always be repeated." He spoke during a meeting of defense officials in Iran.

Trump has wavered between bellicose language and actions toward Iran and a more accommodating tone, including an offer for negotiations. Iran has said it is not interested in a dialogue with Trump.

Saudi Arabia and the U.S. accused Iran of being behind attacks on tankers near the Persian Gulf in recent weeks, while the UAE has been urging diplomacy to avert a wider conflict.

On the eve of Pompeo's visit to the kingdom, Yemen's Iranian-allied rebels attacked a Saudi airport near the Saudi-Yemen border, killing a Syrian resident and wounding 21 other civilians, the Saudi military said.

The Houthi rebels claimed they used bomb-laden drones to attack the Abha airport, the second in less than two weeks. Drones were also used against a Saudi oil pipeline last month.

In a statement, Pompeo condemned the Abha airport attack and said the war in Yemen is not an isolated conflict. He accused Iran of funneling cash, weapons, and armed support to the Houthis, which Iran denies.

Saudi Arabia has been at war with the rebel Houthis in Yemen for more than four years. The Houthis say the attacks are a response to relentless Saudi airstrikes on Yemen that have killed thousands.

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Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell in Dubai; Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran; Geir Moulson in Berlin; Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, and Darlene Superville in Washington contributed.