Concern About Iran Prompts Germany, Netherlands to Suspend Military Operations in Iraq

By James Carstensen | May 15, 2019 | 7:25pm EDT
A German military trainer briefs Kurdish Peshmerga forces in Erbil, Iraq. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Berlin ( – Germany’s Defense Ministry announced Wednesday that it is temporarily suspending its military training mission in Iraq, as the Netherlands took a similar decision and the U.S. said it was pulling out non-emergency diplomatic staff from Baghdad and Erbil.

The decision comes amid escalating tensions with Iran, with the U.S. administration warning of possible plans by the regime or its proxies to attack U.S. interests or allies in the region.

Germany has around 160 troops in Iraq, as part of the U.S.-led coalition that has been assisting and training Iraqi forces in the fight against ISIS jihadists. They are reportedly deployed north of Baghdad and in the Kurdish region in the north. The Dutch contingent, based in Erbil, is some 50-strong.

German Defense Ministry spokesman Jens Flosdorff said the decision was in response to a “generally heightened alert,” while the Netherlands has not yet released a statement.

France, the Czech Republic and the NATO military alliance have said they would continue activities in Iraq.

Tensions with Iran have escalated in recent weeks. Iran has denied allegations, by unnamed U.S. officials, that it was behind an incident that damaged oil tankers off the UAE coast on Sunday. On Tuesday, the Iran-backed Houthi militia in Yemen took credit for drone attacks on a major Saudi pipeline in the region.

The U.S. has deployed an aircraft carrier group and strategic bombers in the region in what the White House has characterized as a message to Iran. On Wednesday, the State Department ordered the evacuation of all non-emergency staff from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

“Obviously, we are watching the increasing tensions in the region with considerable concern,” Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokeswoman, Ulrike Demmer, said Wednesday.

However, both the U.S. and Iran have tried to downplay fears of a potential military clash.

“We fundamentally don’t seek war with Iran,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Sochi on Tuesday.

“But we’ve also made clear to the Iranians that if American interests are attacked, we will most certainly respond in an appropriate fashion,” he added.

“We don’t seek a war, and they don’t either,” Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was quoted by state media Tuesday as telling a meeting of senior officials. “They know it’s not in their interests.”

Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami warned, however, that Iran would retaliate if needed.

“Iran has the highest level of defense-military preparedness to confront any type of threat and excessive demands,” state media outlets quoted him as saying on Wednesday.

Ryan McMaken, a political scientist and fellow at the Mises Institute, said the outcome of the current tensions would be difficult to predict.

“[President] Trump has repeatedly ‘talked tough’ while also refusing to go to the wall, forcing true diplomatic crises,” he said. “Is that the case this time? It’s hard to say.”

Saving the deal

Meanwhile the European Union is reaffirming its commitment to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal and moving ahead with an alternative payment system to continue trade with Iran.

“We will continue to support it as much as we can with all our instruments and all our political will. This is very well known, both in Washington and in Tehran," E.U. foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told reporters on Monday, after meeting with British, German and French ministers and a sidelines meeting with Pompeo.

The E.U. has been scrambling for a way to maintain the JCPOA ever since the U.S. withdrew and reimposed sanctions last year.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced last week that the regime will gradually withdraw from some of its commitments under the accord. He said Iran would resume enriching uranium to higher levels than those allowed under the JCPOA, unless Britain, Germany, and France find a solution to offsetting U.S. sanctions within 60 days.

The E.U. in a statement on Monday indicated it plans to continue efforts on the so-called INSTEX payment system, designed to enable E.U. companies to trade with Iran without attracting U.S. sanctions, with hopes to begin the first transactions in the next few weeks.

McMaken said the effectiveness of INSTEX will depend on how politically committed European allies are.

“The fact that it is being promoted at all is a big deal since it shows the rest of the world is now seriously considering alternatives to the U.S.-based global financial system which has for so long allowed the U.S. to throw its weight around through global financial sanctions,” he said.

Despite Mogherini’s pledge, Jan Zahradil, a Czech member of the European Parliament and head of the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe grouping, said he preferred the U.S. approach, telling Euronews Iran does not appear to be taking the E.U. seriously.

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