NATO Secretary General parrots US concerns over Iran’s military programmes and European allies avoid criticising US assassination of Iranian commander

By Dr. Ian Davis, NATO Watch

8 January 2020

NATO ambassadors met in Brussels on 6 January for an urgent meeting convened by the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to discuss the situation in the Middle East after a US drone strike in Baghdad killed Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander Qassem Soleimani on 3 January. The alliance decided on 4 January to suspend its training mission in Iraq over security risks following the assassination of Soleimani. Since then, the Iraqi parliament has called for the removal of US troops from Iraq, but there is less clarity whether coalition forces will be allowed to continue to train the Iraqi army to fight the Islamic State.

In a remarkably myopic press briefing after the NATO Ambassadors’ meeting, a stoney-faced NATO Secretary General singled out Iran when talking about the need to lower tensions and seemingly parroted what he heard from a US video conference briefing on the regional situation and the merits of US actions. He also refused to condemn or question the assassination of General Soleimani.

During his press briefing, Stoltenberg said that “For years, all allies have expressed concern about Iran’s destabilising activities in the wider Middle East region. We agree Iran must never acquire a nuclear weapon. We share concern about Iran’s missile tests. And we are united in condemning Iran’s support for a variety of different terrorist groups”. He added, “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 provocation”.

When asked by two journalists whether any allies criticised the US or asked for US restraint, he reiterated that all allies called for restraint and de-escalation, but without suggesting any specific finger-pointing towards Washington. Indeed, according to a Reuters report, two diplomats present confirmed that no envoy challenged the US position during the two-hour meeting at NATO headquarters. There was also no discussion or criticism of Trump's list of targets, that are said to include cultural sites, if Iran were to retaliate with attacks on Americans or US assets, the diplomats said. So far, the “severe revenge” Iran promised has been limited to largely symbolic short-range missile attacks on bases in Iraq hosting US and coalition personnel, and thankfully with no casualties.

Similarly, when asked for a personal view on the assassination the NATO Secretary General ducked the question and simply said it was a US decision and not a NATO decision. While the US administration appears to be arguing that the strike was an act of anticipatory self-defence, no evidence has so far been provided that Soleimani presented an imminent threat to the United States and US forces. Agnes Callamard, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, questions whether this strike would meet the standard needed to justify its legality on those grounds. "The test for so-called anticipatory self-defence is very narrow: It must be a necessity that is 'instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment of deliberation'. This test is unlikely to be met in these particular cases", she tweeted.

This whitewashing of the US role in escalating the crisis in the Middle East is hardly surprising. Can anyone remember a NATO Secretary General ever publicly criticising a US President in the alliance’s 70-year history? This is because it has never happened: the US holds the NATO purse strings and carries the heaviest stick. Hence, the European and Canadian members of the alliance shamefully sat on their hands during the NATO meeting.

This failure of the European allies to emerge from Washington’s shadow is a grave error as is solely blaming Iran for instability across the region. While Iran is not without blame, the increasingly tense situation in the Persian Gulf is a fairly direct result of the Trump administration’s decision to unilaterally exit the rigorously negotiated Iran nuclear deal.

This inability of NATO to publicly criticise US policy also plays into the hands of the hard liners in both Tehran and Washington. Contrary to how it is often portrayed, Iran is not a monolith. There are numerous centres of power fighting for influence within and between the considerable government, military and religious decision-making bodies. Similarly, it is a huge mistake to think that President Trump speaks for the whole of America, when there are significant voices in opposition.

Stoltenberg also declined to comment on the possibility of the US evoking NATO's collective defence clause in the event that Iran engages in retaliation. Instead, he asserted that at this stage, "speculation" on the possible scenarios risked producing adverse effects and escalating tensions instead of calming them. But unless European leaders acquire a backbone, they risk being drawn into another unnecessary conflict by an ‘ally’ whose words and deeds are increasingly contrary to Europe’s interests and values.

European NATO member states are walking a tightrope between mollifying their US ally and their desire to keep Iran in the nuclear deal. But this balancing act is not sustainable. Instead, Europe needs to move beyond enemy creation in Iran and instead use its collective power to establish constructive partnerships with governments in the region to create a WMD Free Zone and other mechanisms that strengthen the commitment to peace and reconciliation.