NATO tells Iran to avoid 'further provocations'



NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg delivers a speech during a press conference at the end of The North Atlantic Council meeting focused on the situation concerning Iran at NATO headquarters in Brussel, on January 6th. [Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP]

Tehran should avoid "further violence and provocations", NATO warned Monday (January 6th), as tensions mount in the Middle East after US forces killed a top Iranian general.

The warning came as the EU called an extraordinary meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels on Friday to discuss the fallout from the killing of Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force (IRGC-QF).

At a hastily-convened emergency session of NATO's ruling council on Monday afternoon, US officials explained the thinking behind the decision to kill Soleimani at Baghdad airport on Friday.

Stoltenberg stressed that the drone strike, which killed at least 10 people, was a "US decision" but said the other 28 NATO members had repeated their longstanding concerns about Iran's destabilising activities in the Middle East.

Asked twice whether any member states criticised the US strike, Stoltenberg stressed their unity and their concern about Iran's behaviour.

"We have recently seen an escalation by Iran, including the strike on a Saudi energy facility, and the shoot-down of an American drone," Stoltenberg said.

"At our meeting today, Allies called for restraint and de-escalation. A new conflict would be in no one's interest, so Iran must refrain from further violence and provocations."

Tehran has vowed to avenge Soleimani, one of Iran's most popular public figures and a key player in its network of alliances and proxy forces around the Middle East, while US President Donald Trump has threatened "major retaliation" if any American targets are hit.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the EU was talking to all parties to try to defuse tensions, calling for restraint and urging gains made in Iraq since the defeat of the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) to be preserved.

"After recent developments in Iraq, now it is important to halt the cycle of violence so that one more action does not give rise to the next one, and instead space is again created for diplomacy," von der Leyen said.

Training mission suspended

The situation has also deteriorated in Iraq, where lawmakers have called for the 5,200 US soldiers deployed there to leave.

NATO maintains a 500-strong mission in Iraq, preparing local forces to take on ISIS, but its core training activities have now been suspended until the security situation improves, Stoltenberg said.

A NATO diplomat told AFP the alliance would have to "wait and see" how Baghdad responds in the coming days.

"From our point of view the parliament resolution is not binding. We take note of it, but have to wait what the government is going to do," the diplomat said.

"We still think that the presence of international troops in Iraq should be continued in order to prevent a resurgence of [ISIS]. But we have to respect what the Iraqi government will eventually decide."

Britain, France and Germany issued a joint statement late on Sunday urging Iran to "refrain from further violent action or proliferation" and criticising the "negative role" Tehran played in the Middle East through Soleimani's forces.

Germany on Tuesday said it had temporarily withdrawn some of its troops deployed as part of the anti-ISIS coalition in Iraq.

A total of 32 German soldiers based in Camp Taji near Baghdad were flown by a military transporter A400m to the al-Azraq airforce base in Jordan, the German military said in a statement.

Three German soldiers stationed in Baghdad were transferred to Kuwait.

"These troops can be brought back at any time if the training in Iraq is to resume," the statement added.

"The safety of our soldiers remains a top priority."

Germany has deployed about 415 soldiers as part of the anti-ISIS coalition, with about 120 of its troops stationed in Iraq.

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