Acting Defense Secretary Mark Esper said tensions with Iran risk escalating “out of control” and urged the Iranian regime to take up President Donald Trump’s offer of negotiations.
Speaking in Brussels after his first meeting with counterparts from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Esper also stepped up a call for “like-minded” nations to team up to protect shipping in the Persian Gulf area after recent attacks on oil tankers that the U.S. has blamed on Iran.
He accused Iran of having sown chaos in the Middle East for the past 40 years through the pursuit of nuclear weapons, development of ballistic missiles, support of terrorism and disruption of shipping. At the same time, the U.S. “does not seek war with Iran,” said Esper, who took up his post earlier this week.
He said the Trump administration will pursue its “maximum-pressure” campaign against Tehran while offering a chance for talks on an accord that would go beyond the landmark 2015 international pact to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Trump abandoned the deal last year, leading to renewed American sanctions on the Iranian economy.
“Iran’s hostile actions are an international problem that affects many nations,” Esper told reporters on Thursday after the NATO gathering. “We want to get them back to the negotiating table and resolve this through diplomacy.”
Governments and markets worldwide have been on edge for weeks amid growing tensions between Washington and Tehran. Over the past week, the U.S. has said one of its drones in the Middle East was illegally shot down by Iranian forces and Trump imposed penalties on the country’s supreme leader after calling off a retaliatory strike.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the whole 29-nation alliance is “deeply concerned” about Iranian actions in the Middle East, praised the U.S. offer of talks with Tehran and welcomed information that Esper provided to partners in Brussels.
Esper downplayed a transatlantic split over the Iranian nuclear accord, which Europe is struggling to uphold in the absence of U.S. backing, and cited a common goal in the West to share information about Iran and avoid even greater tensions with the country.
“We want to continue to consult closely” and to demonstrate “our concern that this could escalate out of control if we don’t get it back in the box,” he said. “The purpose here is to avoid war with Iran.”
(c) 2019, Bloomberg · Glen Carey, Jonathan Stearns