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Stormy US-Europe relations as top officials head to Munich

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Some of
President Donald Trump’s top foreign policy priorities stand at pivotal moments
as two high-level national security officials head to an annual security forum
in Germany. Strains in the trans-Atlantic relationship have cast doubt on
whether they can count on much help from European leaders in advancing Trump’s
agenda.

Secretary of
State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s visit to Munich comes as
the U.S. appears close to signing a truce in Afghanistan, is pushing for
renewing sanctions on Iran, has introduced a new Israeli-Palestinian peace
plan, and is trying to discourage allies from allowing the Chinese company
Huawei to be part of next-generation wireless networks.

Meanwhile,
in the background are worries about the global spread of the deadly new
coronavirus from China.

The Munich
conference, which opens Friday, attracts a wide array of foreign diplomats and
national security officials and has been the venue for unexpected and sometimes
surprising revelations. It has been marked by turbulent U.S.-European relations
before, notably during the debate over the Iraq war in early 2003. But the
current level of tension exceeds that of previous years and spans a wider range
of issues.

Europe is
unlikely to play a major role in what could be the biggest highlight: Pompeo
and Esper are to meet Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on the sidelines of the
conference on Friday amid strong indications that a seven-day “reduction in
violence” agreement that would lead to formal negotiations between Afghanistan’s
factions and is close and likely imminent. A proposal is “on the table,” Esper
told reporters Wednesday in Brussels.

Trump has
agreed in principle to the deal, the final details of which are being hammered
out by U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban
representatives in Doha, Qatar. People familiar with the plan’s outlines say it
calls for the successful conclusion of the weeklong truce to be followed within
10 days by the start of all-Afghan negotiations to set the road map for the
country’s political future.

U.S.
officials have brushed aside claims that a Taliban ultimatum forced their hand.
And, they noted that despite his campaign pledge to withdraw American troops
from Afghanistan and elsewhere, Trump has nixed previous deals that appeared
close in response to attacks on U.S. forces.

While
Afghanistan has the potential to be the most significant development in Munich,
others issues are more likely to highlight tensions with Europe — notably the
future of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

Pompeo, who
has as many as 10 separate meetings with foreign officials and a speech crammed
into his two-day visit, will arrive in Munich shortly after the State
Department gave the clearest signal yet that the administration will deliver an
ultimatum to its European allies on ending the accord.

The
administration has been frustrated by the reluctance of Britain, France and
Germany to move forward quickly with a process that could lead to the
re-imposition of U.N. sanctions on Iran for violating the terms of the
agreement. Iran has breached several limits on program imposed by the deal but
maintains it is only responding to U.S. violations. Trump withdrew the United
States from the deal.

The
Europeans, who want to salvage the deal, have invoked a dispute resolution
mechanism designed to resolve the issues or refer them to the U.N. Security
Council, but U.S. officials aren’t pleased with what they see as a lack of
urgency in a process that can take months to complete.

Its patience
nearing an end ahead of the October expiration of a U.N. arms embargo on Iran,
the administration has laid out a path for it to keep the ban in place by
forcing action in the Security Council.

In a
document provided to Congress this week, the State Department said for the first
time that the conditions for the automatic re-imposition, or “snapback,” of
U.N. sanctions lifted under the terms of the deal can be determined by any of
the states that negotiated it.

The
administration has already advanced the argument, advocated by Iran hawks, that
despite Trump’s withdrawal, the U.S. remains a “participant” in the deal as
defined by the Security Council resolution that enshrined it.

The
Europeans, not to mention Russia and China, have scoffed at that position but
may not have any choice but to accept it as the resolution does not permit a
veto on snapback. And, if the U.S. position is rejected by others it would
create a major geo-political confrontation over sanctions that would pose
serious risks to international commerce.

But the administration
has now taken that a step further, arguing that the U.S. has the authority to
determine if Iran is in “significant non-performance” with the deal’s
requirements. It says that because the criteria for significant non-performance
are not spelled out in the U.N. resolution they can be defined broadly by any
participant.

“We assess
that the state initiating the snapback mechanism retains flexibility in
interpreting what constitutes ‘significant non-performance,’” the State
Department said in a written response to a question on the matter from Sen. Ted
Cruz, a Texas Republican and a leading Iran hawk in Congress.

The
Europeans have resisted previous lobbying to join the U.S. in leaving the deal,
but the administration is expected to push them harder in advocating for an
extension of the arms embargo if they want to save it.

Beyond the
differences over Iran, the U.S. is facing serious pushback from Europe on
Trump’s Middle East peace plan, which is widely seen as biased in favor of
Israel at the expense of the Palestinians and inconsistent with previous
guidelines for a settlement to the conflict.

On Tuesday,
the European Union members of the Security Council — Belgium, Estonia, France
and Germany— gave the plan the cold shoulder. “The U.S. initiative, as
presented on 28 January, departs from these internationally agreed parameters,”
they said in a statement.

Pompeo and
Esper also face an uphill battle in trying to prevent European countries from
allowing the Chinese tech giant Huawei to play a role in their advanced 5G
wireless networks. Despite dire warnings that a Huawei presence would
compromise information security and threats that the U.S. could limit
intelligence cooperation with countries in which the company operates, several
nations have rejected an outright ban.

Britain, notably, announced last month that it would allow Huawei to participate in certain non-sensitive areas of its networks, and European Union 5G guidelines fall far short of addressing U.S. concerns.

source: AP

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