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European ministers meet on ways to calm Iran & Libya crises

The talks between Britain, France, Germany and Italy, plus the EU diplomatic chief, covered the fallout from the US killing of a top Iranian general as well as Tehran's latest step back from the 2015 nuclear deal.

The European Union flag. Picture: Freeimages.com.

BRUSSELS - The foreign ministers of four leading European powers met in Brussels on Tuesday for emergency talks on Iran and Libya, as the EU scrambles to respond to two escalating crises on its doorstep.

The talks between Britain, France, Germany and Italy, plus the EU diplomatic chief, covered the fallout from the US killing of a top Iranian general as well as Tehran's latest step back from the 2015 nuclear deal.

The situation in Libya, where strongman Khalifa Haftar's forces have seized the coastal city of Sirte, is also on the agenda. Haftar receives backing from the UAE and Egypt, while Turkish forces are deploying to protect the UN-recognised government.

"Libya has long since become a place for a war of proxies and we don't want to accept that any longer," Germany's Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters as he arrived for the start of the talks.

The meeting came as the EU searches for ways to contain the growing tensions in the major flashpoints on its periphery, as Iran threatens revenge for the death of Qasem Soleimani in a US drone strike in Baghdad on Friday.

British foreign minister Dominic Raab held a one-on-one meeting with his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian, who has warned Iran against retaliating over Soleimani's death, before joining the German and Italian ministers for talks on Libya.

"The E3 will then meet to discuss the tensions between the US and Iran with all three pushing for de-escalation," the British foreign minister said added, referring to the three European signatories of the Iran nuclear deal.

"The talks will also cover the nuclear deal following Iran's latest announcement on Sunday that it is withdrawing from further commitments in the deal."

TARGETED KILLING

European powers on Monday criticised Iran's announcement that it was cutting its commitments under the nuclear deal, which has been steadily unravelling since US President Donald Trump withdrew and reimposed sanctions in May 2018.

At issue is whether they may trigger a complaint mechanism, alleging that Iran has now also broken the terms of the deal. Le Drian said late Monday that a decision would be made on this in the coming days.

The mechanism has numerous stages but can eventually culminate in the UN Security Council voting on whether to reimpose sanctions on Iran.

"We still believe that this is an important agreement that will prevent Iran from coming into possession of a nuclear bomb," Maas said.

"But we will not be able to take note of announcements with a shrug of our shoulders that the commitments in Tehran will no longer be met."

But the possible repercussions from the killing of Soleimani - the key player in Iran's network of alliances and proxy groups around the Middle East - will be another pressing concern.

The US operation took Washington's allies by surprise, and NATO held an urgent meeting of its ruling council on Monday to hear from American officials and discuss the future of the alliance's training mission in Iraq.

EU officials see the gathering of foreign ministers as a chance to hear the views of all 28 member states on the Iran situation, after differing public reactions to Soleimani's death.

Foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has invited Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to Brussels for talks, but it is not clear if or when he might come.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg spoke to Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi to say the alliance remains committed to the fight against the Islamic State group and would resume training activities - suspended after Soleimani's death - when security improves.

In Libya, Haftar's capture of Sirte raised tensions as Turkey said it was deploying troops to the country to protect the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA).

The oil-rich North African country has been plunged into chaos since the 2011 NATO-backed uprising that killed dictator Moamer Kadhafi.

Borrell warned Monday that more intense fighting could soon break out around Tripoli and called for a political solution to the crisis.

The new European Commission has vowed to take on a more "geopolitical" role but the EU often finds itself hamstrung on foreign policy by internal differences. It took three days for President Ursula von der Leyen to issue a statement on Soleimani's killing.