NATO's secretary-general distanced the alliance Monday from a U.S. drone strike that killed a top Iranian military commander last week, saying the strike was “a U.S. decision.”
The emergency meeting of the 29-member alliance, of which the United States is the biggest and most influential member, was held in Brussels days after Gen. Qassem Soleimani's death, stoking fears of a major escalation in the Middle East.
Jens Stoltenberg called for restraint and de-escalation in the aftermath of the airstrike, adding that “a new conflict would be in no one’s interest.”
Speaking to reporters after the meeting with NATO ambassadors, he neither condemned nor endorsed the U.S. strike that killed Soleimani.
Stoltenberg said the U.S. briefed members on the regional situation and “provided the rationale behind the action against General Soleimani" during the meeting.
U.S. government officials said Soleimani was targeted because of intelligence that showed the general was planning attacks on American diplomats and military personnel.
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No such evidence has been made public.
“We had several briefers from the United States, from the State and from Pentagon, and they briefed and explained to other allies why they took this action against General Soleimani,” Stoltenberg said without going into detail.
The alliance chief was asked several times by reporters about whether the U.S. action had been criticized by other NATO members during the meeting. But he didn't provide a clear answer, saying that “a call for restraint and de-escalation” was clearly expressed at the meeting and reiterating that NATO has repeatedly expressed its concerns about Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region, including Iran’s support for different terrorist groups.
"Iran must refrain from further violence and provocations," he added.
The secretary-general was also asked about what would happen if Iran were to retaliate in a way that would trigger Article 5, a collective defense clause that commits member states to protecting one another in case of attack.
He refused to speculate on how the alliance would react as “this will not help to de-escalate. It will actually do the opposite.”
NATO suspended training of Iraqi forces to ensure the safety of several hundred mission members amid fears for regional stability after the airstrike that killed Soleimani. Stoltenberg said they were prepared to continue training and capacity-building when the situation on the ground makes it possible.
Iraq’s Parliament passed a nonbinding resolution Sunday telling the government to end the presence of foreign troops in Iraq.
Asked if the vote means NATO’s contingent of about 500 trainers, advisers and supporting personnel currently in the country will also have to leave, Stoltenberg said he wouldn’t speculate on the matter as NATO continues to work closely with the Iraqi government, adding that NATO’s forces are in the country by invitation of the Iraqi government.
Iraq has condemned the U.S. airstrike as "a flagrant violation of Iraqi sovereignty" and "a blatant attack on the dignity of the country."
Iraq’s U.N. ambassador, Mohammed Hussein Bahr Aluloom, called on the U.N. Security Council to condemn the U.S. airstrike, The Associated Press reported.
He urged the council in a letter Monday to hold accountable “those who have committed such violations.”
Any Security Council action sought by Iraq against the Trump administration, however, is virtually certain to be vetoed by the U.S.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned Monday that geopolitical tensions were "at their highest level this century."
The U.N. chief added that a “cauldron of tensions is leading more and more countries to take unpredicted decisions with unpredictable consequences and a profound risk of miscalculation.”