TEHRAN, Iran — Iran’s president warned Wednesday that European soldiers in the Mideast “could be in danger” after three nations challenged Tehran over breaking the limits of its nuclear deal. Tehran’s top diplomat meanwhile acknowledged that Iranians “were lied to” for days following the Islamic Republic’s accidental shoot down of a Ukrainian jetliner that killed 176 people.
President Hassan Rouhani’s remarks in a televised Cabinet meeting represent the first direct threat he’s made to Europe as tensions remain high between Tehran and Washington over President Donald Trump withdrawing the U.S. from the deal in May 2018.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s admission, which came at a summit in New Delhi on Wednesday, represents the first time an Iranian official referred to earlier claims from Tehran that a technical malfunction downed the Ukraine International Airlines flight as a lie. The shoot down — and subsequent days of denials that a missile had downed it — sparked days of angry protests in the country.
The current tensions between Iran and the U.S. reached fever-pitch two weeks ago with the American drone strike in Baghdad that killed the powerful Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani. The general had led Iranian proxy forces abroad, including those blame for deadly roadside bomb attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq.
Iran retaliated with a ballistic missile strike targeting Iraqi military bases housing U.S. forces early last Wednesday, just before an anti-aircraft battery shot down the Ukrainian airliner taking off from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport.
Amid all of this, Britain, France and Germany launched the so-called “dispute mechanism” pertaining to Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. Speaking before his Cabinet, Rouhani showed a rarely seen level of anger in his wide-ranging remarks Wednesday.
“Today, the American soldier is in danger, tomorrow the European soldier could be in danger,” Rouhani said. ”We want you to leave this region but not with war. We want you to go wisely. It is to your own benefit.”
Rouhani did not elaborate.
European forces have been deployed alongside Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan. France also maintains a naval base in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, while Britain has opened a base in the island nation of Bahrain.
European Commission spokesman Peter Stano told reporters that officials were aware of the threats, but the European Union had no plans to leave Iraq. Italian Defense Minister Lorenzo Guerini told lawmakers his government has plans to increase Rome’s troop levels at the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which 20% of all oil passes.
German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer made an unannounced visit Wednesday to the Azraq base in Jordan, where German troops serving in the fight against the Islamic State group are based. Germany wants to resume training Iraqi forces.
Rouhani separately criticized Europe’s “baseless” words regarding the nuclear deal. Iran had been holding out for Europe to offer a means by which Tehran could sell its oil abroad despite U.S. sanctions. However, a hoped-for trading mechanism for other goods hasn’t taken hold and a French-pitched line of credit also hasn’t materialized.