By Lesley Wroughton
BRUSSELS, Feb 15 – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the EU’s top diplomat discussed global conflicts but largely avoided the issue of Iran on Friday, a day after Vice President Mike Pence accused European allies of trying to undermine U.S. sanctions on Tehran.
Pompeo’s meeting with Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, was scheduled before Pence’s rebuke of European powers, during a Middle East peace conference in Warsaw on Thursday. Mogherini missed the Warsaw conference, citing a scheduling conflict at NATO.
Mogherini, who helped to seal a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers that Washington now rejects, greeted Pompeo at the EU’s headquarters in Brussels. She shook off a question seeking her reaction to Pence’s speech.
State Department spokesman Robert Palladino said Pence’s speech was not raised during the hour-long meeting, which he said was friendly and constructive.
“Absolutely not. It was not discussed at all,” Palladino told reporters travelling with Pompeo, when asked whether Pence’s speech and the Iran nuclear deal were mentioned.
They also did not talk about the Iran nuclear deal, although they did discuss Iran‘s “destabilizing activities and the need to counter them,” he said.
In a separate statement, Palladino said the sides agreed to work closely on efforts to restore democracy in Venezuela. They also discussed ending the conflict in Syria, Afghanistan and Ukraine and an upcoming leaders’ summit on North Korea, he said.
A spokeswoman for Mogherini said the talks with Pompeo had focused on Venezuela, Syria, Afghanistan, the Korean peninsula, Ukraine and the Western Balkans.
Pence’s unusually tough words on Thursday for allies Germany, France and Britain reflect Washington’s strategy of isolating Iran, and are likely to further strain transatlantic relations.
The United States withdrew from the 2015 Iran deal last year. Under that deal, Tehran accepted curbs on its nuclear programme in return for the lifting of sanctions.
On Thursday, speaking at NATO before Pence’s comments, Mogherini said upholding the deal was vital to European security because it prevented Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon.
European countries say they share U.S. concerns about Iran‘s involvement in wars in Yemen and Syria but that withdrawing from the nuclear deal was a mistake. They have promised to try to salvage the deal as long as Iran continues to abide by it. In practice, European companies have accepted new U.S. sanctions on Iran and abandoned plans to invest there.
France, Germany and Britain have agreed on a new channel for non-dollar trade with Iran to avert U.S. sanctions. That will likely take months to open, however, and is expected to be used only for smaller trade such as humanitarian products or food.
(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; additional reporting by Francesco Guarascio; editing by Robin Emmott, Susan Heavey and Steve Orlofsky)