Mark Esper attacks Iran’s malign regional influence and support for militia attacks

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The National– US Defence Secretary said Tehran is “inching” to the negotiating table under maximum pressure policy.

Mark Esper, the US defence secretary, warned that Iran posed a “rampant” threat to the Middle East by supporting and inspiring militia forces that are waging hostile attacks on countries across the region.

Speaking in support of Washington’s policy of “maximum pressure” on the Iranian regime to reign in its allies and militia forces, Mr Esper used an appearance in London to condemn the “bigger challenge” that Iran posed to regional security.

“Iran is rampant in terms of its support for militias in the region,” he told an invited audience at the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi) in London. “Iran is supporting, inspiring many of those forces in the region.

Mr Esper said maximum pressure was designed to bring Iran back to the negotiating table to address not just the weaknesses in the 2015 nuclear deal but also its missile proliferation activity and meddling in its neighbours. He said his message to European allies still wedded to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was Tehran’s “malign behaviour” was just terrible to all these countries.

President Donald Trump has left the door open to a possible meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the upcoming UN General Assembly in New York.

“It seems in some ways that Iran is inching toward that place where we could have talks and hopefully it’ll play out that way,” Mr Esper said. “The use of maximum pressure is to bring Iran back to the negotiating table where we can pursue a new JCPOA.”
Friction between the two countries has grown since Trump last year withdrew from a 2015 international accord under which Iran had agreed to rein in its atomic program in exchange for relief from economic sanctions.

The new head of the American defence department also hit out at European countries that refusing to repatriate foreign fighters that left the continent to join Isis in Syria and Iraq. He said capital’s must agree a mechanism to repatriate those captured on the battlefield. “It’s an untenable situation,” he said. “How long can this last? Our view has been they should repatriated and dealt with appropriately … otherwise that’s a risk to the region.”
Mr Esper moves on to Paris from London where he and his French counterpart will discuss on Saturday how France’s navy could coordinate with Washington to ensure freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz.

“We recognise that France has an interest in participating in freedom of navigation, bringing freedom of navigation capabilities to the Persian Gulf and we will be looking to find ways to harness and use that interest to better coordinate with our own initiative,” the official told reporters in a conference call ahead of Esper’s meeting with Florence Parly in Paris.

France has ruled out joining the US-led coalition of countries protecting oil tankers and cargo ships from threats posed by Iran in the Strait of Hormuz, but has pushed for a European supplementary maritime operation.