Pompeo scraps Merkel talks due to 'global security issues'
The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, has abruptly cancelled a long-established plan to hold talks with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, in Berlin, citing unspecified “international security issues”.
The unusual last-minute schedule change follows brief talks between Pompeo and the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, on the sidelines of an Arctic Council meeting in Finland on Monday.
Journalists travelling with Pompeo were not informed where they were going instead of Berlin, with Pompeo’s staff saying they may not be able to reveal the next destination until after they had left. Their plane has been tracked heading east.
Pompeo rang the German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, to explain the decision to drop his first meeting in Berlin as secretary of state, and promised to reschedule soon.
Norbert Röttgen, the chair of the German foreign affairs committee, described the cancellation as “very regrettable”, adding: “There is a lot to discuss about common challenges, but also about the internal relationship between Germany and the US.
“Even if there were unavoidable reasons for the cancellation, it unfortunately fits into the current climate in the relationship of the two governments.”
British and US sources said the Berlin cancellation did not mean talks planned for later on Wednesday between Pompeo, the UK prime minister, Theresa May, and the British foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, would also be dropped.
Pompeo is due to give the Margaret Thatcher lecture in London on the importance of the transatlantic relationship, weeks before Donald Trump’s state visit to Britain, timed to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the D-day landings.
With the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, due in Moscow this week, the US has been concerned by reports that Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, is to announce on Wednesday a partial retreat from the nuclear deal agreed in 2015.
The Iranian leadership feels under pressure to respond to a refusal by the US to extend sanctions waivers, especially on Iranian oil, and its imposition of secondary sanctions on any European companies that seek to to trade with Iran. The US has also declared the Iranian Revolutionary Guards a terrorist group, and announced the dispatching of an aircraft carrier and bomber taskforce to the Middle East, citing unspecified intelligence suggesting Iran may be planning attacks.
Other urgent international security issues that may be preoccupying Pompeo include North Korea’s resumption of its missile programme and a possible Russian-endorsed assault on Idlib province in north-east Syria.
Emmanuel Macron, the French president, issued a statement of concern about the latter, saying: “The attacks of the regime and its allies, including [on] hospitals, have killed many civilians in recent days.”
The lack of an immediate explanation for the Pompeo cancellation came as Russia announced the US secretary of state would be travelling to the Black Sea resort of Sochi next week to hold talks with Lavrov and possibly Vladimir Putin.
The discussions will be the first since the Mueller inquiry declared Trump had not been guilty of collusion with Russia during his 2016 election campaign, and both sides may be testing whether the new political environment makes it easier for Washington and Moscow to cooperate.
The meeting also follows a phone call between Trump and Putin last week in which the US president downplayed the role of Russia in the Venezuela crisis. Lavrov lavished praise on Pompeo on Sunday for the seriousness of his approach to their talks.