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Europe Aims to Shore Up Iraq With Iran and Libya Out of Reach

Ian Wishart and Caroline Alexander

(Bloomberg) -- The European Union is focused on maintaining stability in Iraq as shock-waves from the killing of Iran’s top general in Baghdad this month reverberate around the Middle East.

“Iraq is our most important concern today,” Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said in a press conference after an emergency meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels on Friday.

With the Iran nuclear accord unraveling and Europe’s influence in Libya fading, Iraq is one place EU leaders are trying to make a difference. If instability were to spread through Iraq, that could lead to another wave of refugees stoking anti-migrant sentiment in Europe and create the conditions for Islamic State to rise again.

“We have to avoid the spiral of violence that can create a situation in Iraq that can be very dangerous and destroy years of efforts and work on rebuilding this country,” he said.

Though both Washington and Tehran have stepped back from the brink since retaliatory Iranian missile strikes on a U.S. airbase in Iraq avoided military casualties, the situation remains volatile. Borrell said ministers gave him “a strong mandate” to work on a political regional solution.

Most ministers were aware that Iran is not the only country stirring up trouble in the region, according to one diplomat who was in the room. With Saudi Arabia and Qatar also playing dirty, ministers concluded that picking a winner and a loser is not going to work, he said.

The meeting saw the ministers divided into two camps, the diplomat added. The U.K. and Poland led calls for European nations to follow the U.S. and pull out of the nuclear deal. France’s argument that the EU still needs to engage with Iran won more support though while Germany was caught between in the middle.

Libya is another source of acute concern that was discussed.

Earlier this week, military commander Khalifa Haftar captured Sirte, a strategic city on the coast that could help advance his 10-month offensive against the internationally-recognized government in Tripoli.

Nuclear Accord

Europe’s traditional influence in the North African oil producer has been eclipsed by the arrival of other players -- chiefly Russia and Turkey -- with forces on the ground leaving them better placed to contain or escalate the country’s conflict.

“Recent developments show that the crisis may spiral out of control and today we wanted to send a strong signal of unity,“ Borrell said.

Borrell insisted the EU remains committed to salvaging the 2015 nuclear deal, perhaps in the hope that the U.S. election in 10 months time will bring a shift in the White House’s attitude.

The U.K. and other European signatories to the accord may have vowed to protect it from the fallout of Soleimani’s death but they’ll come under renewed pressure to reconsider that position if Iran shows its aiming to substantially step up its nuclear enrichment.

Tehran has been slowly discarding the accord’s limitations on its enrichment of uranium since President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the pact in 2018, demanding tougher curbs on Iran. Earlier on Friday, in an interview with RTL radio, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said if the deal continues to fray, Iran could get atomic weapons within “a year or two.”

Without the accord, the Islamic Republic would already be a nuclear state, Borrell said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Ian Wishart in Brussels at iwishart@bloomberg.net;Caroline Alexander in London at calexander1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Ben Sills at bsills@bloomberg.net, Viktoria Dendrinou

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