US envoy says war with Iran ‘unnecessary,’ but military buildup going ahead

US envoy says war with Iran ‘unnecessary,’ but military buildup going ahead

Brian Hook calls for international naval force to protect ships in Persian Gulf, as tensions soar and Tehran readies to breach key provision of nuclear deal

Brian Hook , the US special envoy for Iran, gestures during an interview in Paris, June 27, 2019. (AP Photo/Nicolas Garriga)
Brian Hook , the US special envoy for Iran, gestures during an interview in Paris, June 27, 2019. (AP Photo/Nicolas Garriga)

PARIS, France (AP) — The United States does not want a full-blown war with Iran, although it still is seeking to build up international defenses in the region just in case of a conflict, US President Donald Trump’s special envoy to the country said Thursday.

The big question is whether other countries are ready to join with Washington. So far, Europe is favoring diplomacy instead.

Iran is poised to surpass a key uranium stockpile threshold, threatening an accord it reached in 2015 with world powers aimed at curbing its nuclear activity. Tehran made no immediate announcement Thursday that it had done so, perhaps waiting to hear what Europe can offer at a meeting Friday to keep the deal alive.

French President Emmanuel Macron is trying to dial back tensions, saying he hopes to convince Trump to open talks with Iran and avoid a war that would engulf the Middle East. The two men are to meet Friday at a Group of 20 summit in Japan.

“There is no brief war,” Macron warned. “We know when it’s starting, but not when it’s finishing.”

French President Emmanuel Macron, left, shakes hands with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe after their joint press conference at Abe’s official residence in Tokyo, June 26, 2019. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara, pool)

Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook met with top European diplomats Thursday in Paris, and he told The Associated Press that he wants to get tougher on Iran, instead of clinging to the nuclear deal that the US pulled out of last year.

War with Iran is “not necessary,” Hook said in an interview.

“We are not looking for any conflict in the region,” he said. But if the US is attacked, “we will respond with military force.”

To that end, the US is trying to drum up support for an international naval force in Persian Gulf, notably to protect shipping.

“The president would like to see an international response of like-minded countries who could come together and contribute assets that could be used to enhance maritime security in the region,” Hook said.

US President Donald Trump holds up a signed executive order to increase sanctions on Iran, in the Oval Office of the White House, June 24, 2019, in Washington. Trump is accompanied by Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, left, and Vice President Mike Pence. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

But acting US Defense Secretary Mark Esper, at his first NATO meeting this week, left Brussels with no firm commitments after discussing the idea with US allies.

Tensions have been rising in the Middle East after the US imposed new sanctions on Iran to cripple its economy. Citing unspecified Iranian threats, the US has sent an aircraft carrier to the region and deployed additional troops alongside the tens of thousands already there.

The US has been worried about international shipping through the Strait of Hormuz since tankers were damaged in May and June in what Washington has blamed on limpet mines from Iran, although Tehran denies any involvement. Last week, Iran shot down a US Navy surveillance drone, saying it violated its territory; Washington said it was in international airspace.

Iran recently quadrupled its production of low-enriched uranium as it slowly steps away from the nuclear deal. Even though Trump pulled the US out of it, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China are still part of the pact.

Iran previously said it would surpass a 300-kilogram stockpile limit set by the accord by Thursday. Tehran made no statements about it, possibly because it was a holiday weekend in the country, but also because it could be waiting for the outcome of a key meeting Friday in Vienna by European officials on the nuclear deal.

Iranian envoy to the UN Majid Takht Ravanchi briefs journalists outside the Security Council on June 24, 2019. (Loey Felipe/UN)

Majid Takht Ravanchi, Iran’s ambassador at the UN, told reporters he didn’t have “any exact information” on whether the limit has been breached.

If his country exceeded limits on low-enriched uranium under the deal, it could be quickly reversed as soon as Tehran sees recovery in its oil and banking sectors, he said, adding that he hopes “tangible results can be achieved” in Vienna “so that we can reverse our decision.”

Ravanchi said Iran isn’t planning to get out of the 2015 agreement.

Hook wouldn’t comment on whether Iran had surpassed the limit, but he estimated that Iran is still at least a year away from building a nuclear weapon. Iran denies that it seeks nuclear weapons.

“That is the standard of the Iran nuclear deal, that Iran should never be able to get to a nuclear weapon in less than a year. This is relevant because Iran still is they still hold the title of the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism,” he said.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif sent a letter urging European signatories to the accord to implement their commitments, saying that Iran’s next steps depend on that, Iranian state TV reported Thursday.

Britain, France and Germany are finalizing a complicated barter-type system known as INSTEX to maintain trade with Iran and avoid US sanctions, as part of efforts to keep the nuclear deal afloat.

Hook dismissed those efforts, suggesting that no companies will use such a system because they’d rather trade with the US than Iran.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attends a presser with Iraqi Foreign Minister in the capital Baghdad on May 26, 2019. (SABAH ARAR / AFP)

Instead, he said, “We would like to see the European Union impose sanctions on those people and organizations that are facilitating Iran’s missile program…. If you don’t do sanctions, it also sends a signal of sort of tacit approval.”

He suggested frustration that France has not been more outspoken about Iran recently but played down any “trans-Atlantic rift.”

France is among those seeking to play a mediating role. Macron sent his diplomatic adviser to Tehran last week and spoke to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani this week.

Many in Europe are relieved that Trump did not order military retaliation against Iran last week for the drone shoot-down, but they are rattled that he was close to doing so. It is not clear whether the Trump administration discussed the operation with any European allies ahead of time.

The US announced additional sanctions Monday on Iranian leaders over the drone attack.

Iran’s Zarif criticized Trump on Thursday, tweeting that “sanctions aren’t (an) alternative to war; they ARE war.”

The US has said it may also sanction Zarif, who helped negotiate the 2015 nuclear deal.

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