Secretary of State Mike Pompeo heads to Europe on Thursday to meet with officials from two governments that maintain close ties with Iran, just days after President Trump suggested he would welcome negotiations with Tehran over its nuclear program.
Pompeo’s itinerary includes three days in Switzerland, an unusually long time for him to spend in any one country. Switzerland represents U.S. interests in Iran, which has imprisoned at least five Americans the United States considers hostages and is believed to know the whereabouts of a sixth who disappeared there 12 years ago.
In an unlikely side excursion, Pompeo also will swing by an exclusive meeting in Montreux, where royalty, government officials and business executives are gathering to discuss U.S.-European issues in sessions so secretive that participants must vow never to divulge who says what.
State Department officials said Iran is one of many issues that will be discussed when Pompeo visits Berlin, the Swiss capital of Bern and The Hague in the Netherlands before joining Trump on a state visit to London.
Europeans are alarmed by the escalating tensions between Washington and Tehran. They also are being squeezed between U.S. demands for Iran to change its ways and Iran’s threat to stop meeting parts of the 2015 nuclear deal if Europe doesn’t help it get around U.S. sanctions.
The United States has rushed the deployment of an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf, and Trump ordered 1,500 troops sent to the region to counter Iran. In Tokyo on Monday, Trump welcomed Japan’s offer to mediate between Washington and Tehran, renounced regime change, and predicted “I think we’ll make a deal” with Iran.
Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, has accused “elements” in the Trump administration of pushing for war with his country and said there will be no talks with the United States, not even indirectly.
Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday during remarks at the Brookings Institution that the U.S. decision to reinforce its military posture in the Middle East was based on a confluence of threats emanating from Iraq, Yemen and the Persian Gulf, amounting to something that military officials believed “looked more like a campaign than an individual threat.”
Also on Wednesday, acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan, speaking to reporters accompanying him on a trip to Asia, said that some of the troops sent to the Middle East would go to Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
While the State Department officials insisted Iran will not be a primary focus of Pompeo’s talks in Europe, the timing lends an urgency and could signal Trump’s efforts to diffuse the bellicose rhetoric of late coming from both capitals.
Pompeo’s first stop will be in Berlin to meet with Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. Pompeo planned to go to Berlin in mid-May but skipped it to visit European Union diplomats meeting in Brussels instead. Germany dispatched a senior diplomat to Tehran last week to urge the Iranians not to pull back from the nuclear deal.
Pompeo will spend the weekend in Switzerland, where he will meet with the Swiss foreign minister, Ignazio Cassis, in Bern.
At some point, he will head to the town of Montreux at the foot of the Alps, where the exclusive Bilderberg Meeting will already be underway. A State Department official confirmed Pompeo will attend briefly to make a few remarks and answer questions.
It is an unusual venue for Pompeo, a former congressman from Kansas who routinely travels around the United States urging young people to join the State Department.
The Bilderberg Meeting, named after the hotel where the first meeting was held in 1954, is designed to foster warm relations between Americans and Europeans. It runs under the Chatham House rule, meaning participants can use the information they learn but cannot reveal the identity or affiliation of any speaker. The secrecy is supposed to encourage free discussions.
The clandestine nature of the group has led to a raft of conspiracy theories that the group is plotting a new world order.
But the group publicly releases a list of participants and the general agenda. This year, the 130 or so guests include Trump adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, the former Google CEO and current Microsoft CEO, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, and Stacey Abrams, who lost her bid to become governor of Georgia last year.
The group’s announced agenda includes a discussion of Brexit, social media, cyberthreats, climate change, Russia, the future of capitalism and a “stable strategic order.”
Swiss President Ueli Maurer also will attend, though it is unclear if Pompeo intends to speak with him there or in Bern.
Missy Ryan contributed to this report.