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Pompeo to meet Putin in Russia amid fears over US-Iran clash

  • The Guardian Australia
  • 15 May 2019
  • Andrew Roth in Moscow Additional reporting by Sam Jones in Madrid

Mike Pompeo is to meet Vladimir Putin in Russia at a time of heightened fears of a clash between the US and Iran, a Moscow ally.

The US secretary of state’s visit on Tuesday will be the first meeting between senior officials from the two countries since the release of Robert Mueller’s redacted report on his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign.

The investigation was said to have constrained Trump’s desire to build closer relations with Putin, whom he openly praised during the campaign.

Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, called the talks an attempt to stabilise a bilateral relationship battered by the special counsel’s investigation and growing tensions in Venezuela and Iran, where Moscow backs leaders opposed by Washington.

In remarks on Monday, Lavrov blamed the US for provoking the current crisis with Iran by exiting the nuclear deal negotiated under Barack Obama. Iran began a partial withdrawal from the nuclear deal last week.

“We will attempt to clarify with him how the Americans are planning to come out of the crisis they created with their unilateral decisions,” Lavrov said. “We count on a frank talk with my American counterpart.”

The US has sent an aircraft carrier and a bomber taskforce to the Middle East in response to what officials called “a credible threat” by Iranian regime forces. Saudi Arabia said that several of its oil tankers had been damaged in mysterious “sabotage attacks” after US warnings that Iran could target shipping in the region.

On Tuesday morning, the Spanish government said it had decided to temporarily withdraw a warship that had formed part of the US-led taskforce. A spokesman for the defence ministry confirmed that the frigate Méndez Nuñez had been pulled from the fleet, describing the move as a “temporary separation”.

Spanish media reported that the decision had been taken to stop Spain being dragged into a conflict between the US and Iran. The defence ministry declined to comment on the reasons for the withdrawal, but said the defence minister, Margarita Robles, would make a statement in Brussels later on Tuesday.

Pompeo has met leaders in Europe and the Middle East to discuss tensions with Iran in the last week.

He cancelled plans to arrive in Moscow on Monday to meet US business leaders and embassy staff, instead travelling to Brussels to crash a summit of European diplomats, who have sought to salvage the nuclear deal and urged him to show maximum restraint towards Iran.

Jeremy Hunt, the UK foreign secretary, said the America’s European allies were concerned about a potential war breaking out between Iran and the US. “We are very worried about the risk of a conflict happening by accident with an escalation that is unintended on either side,” Hunt said.

Russian media have also reported that Pompeo would request a meeting between Trump and Putin at the G20 summit in June, although the Russian foreign ministry denied it had received any request.

Pompeo is first expected to meet Lavrov in Sochi, a resort city on Russia’s Black Sea coast. Putin would later join the talks, his press secretary said. Pompeo is seen as more hawkish on Russia than Trump. He recently accused Moscow of foiling a revolution in Venezuela by convincing the embattled president, Nicolás Maduro, not to flee the country.

The two sides are also expected to discuss Ukraine, where Russia has extended offers of passports to Ukrainians living in regions under separatist control, and nuclear arms control. New Start, one of the last remaining arms control agreements between Russia and the US, is due to expire in 2021.

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