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Pence from Warsaw lashes out at Europeans over Iran

US Vice President Mike Pence speaks next to the Warsaw Uprising Monument in Warsaw, Poland February 14, 2019
US Vice President Mike Pence accused European powers on Thursday of undermining Washington's crack down on Iran by trying to break US sanctions against Tehran, in remarks that were likely to further strain transatlantic relations.

Pence spoke at a Middle East peace conference in Warsaw attended by 60 countries, notably including both Gulf Arab states and Israel, in what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called a "historical turning point" for an alliance against Tehran. Iran, Russia and the Palestinians were absent.

European powers, who oppose the Trump administration's decision to pull out of a nuclear deal with Iran, were openly skeptical of a conference excluding Tehran. France and Germany declined to send their top diplomats, while British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt left before Thursday's main events.

"Sadly, some of our leading European partners have not been nearly as cooperative," Pence said. "In fact, they have led the effort to create mechanisms to break up our sanctions."

Trump pulled the United States last year out of the 2015 Iran deal, under which Tehran agreed to curbs on its nuclear program in return for the lifting of sanctions.

European countries say they share Washington's concerns about Iran's regional behavior but believe withdrawing from the nuclear deal was a mistake, and have promised to try to salvage the deal as long as Iran continues to abide by it. In practice, European companies have accepted new US sanctions on Iran and abandoned plans to invest there.

Pence called on the Europeans to follow Washington and exit the agreement: "The time has come for our European partners to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and join with us."

He said a new European scheme to trade with Iran, known as the Special Purpose Vehicle, was "an effort to break American sanctions against Iran's murderous revolutionary regime".

"It is an ill-advised step that will only strengthen Iran, weaken the EU and create still more distance between Europe and the United States," he said.

The mechanism was conceived as a way to help match Iranian oil and gas exports against purchases of EU goods. However, those ambitions have been scaled back, with diplomats saying that, realistically, it will be used only for trade, for example of humanitarian products or food, allowed by Washington.

European diplomats at the conference rejected Pence's accusations: "We strongly disagree," a diplomat from a major European power said. "We want to push Iran to good results and don’t want to push Iran outside of its nuclear commitment."

The summit venue in Poland could itself be seen as a rebuke to Washington's traditional Western European allies, who are at odds with a nationalist government in Warsaw over moves the EU says curb judicial independence and free speech.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is due to travel to Brussels on Friday for talks with Federica Mogherini, the EU's foreign policy chief. Pompeo told a news conference there were differences during the summit meeting over how to get Iran to change its ways, but there was unanimity, including from Europeans, that Tehran posed a global threat.

"We make no bones about it, we need more sanctions, more pressure on Iran," Pompeo said in closing remarks. "There was not a defender of Iran in the room. No country. No country spoke out and denied any of the basic facts that we have all laid out about Iran, the threat it poses, the nature of regime."

The summit was notable because of the presence of Israel alongside wealthy Arab states Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Washington aims to narrow differences between its Israeli and Arab allies to isolate Iran.