by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg following a meeting of the North Atlantic Council
I have just chaired a meeting of the North Atlantic Council.
We addressed current tensions in the Middle East, and implications for NATO’s training mission in Iraq.
NATO and all NATO Allies take part in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.
And NATO’s mission in Iraq is an important contribution to the Coalition’s effort.
At the invitation of the Iraqi government, we are helping to train forces and prevent the return of ISIS.
At our meeting today, Allies expressed their strong support for the fight against ISIS and for the NATO mission in Iraq.
In everything that we do, the safety of our personnel is paramount.
As such, we have for the time being suspended our training on the ground.
And we are taking all precautions necessary to protect our people.
We are keeping the situation under close review.
And we remain in close contact with the Iraqi authorities.
NATO is prepared to continue our training and capacity-building when the situation permits.
We remain strongly committed to the fight against international terrorism.
At our meeting today, the United States also briefed on the regional situation, following recent attacks on coalition forces in Iraq, and the strike against General Soleimani.
For years, all Allies have expressed concern about Iran’s destabilising activities in the wider Middle East region.
We agree Iran must never acquire a nuclear weapon.
We share concern about Iran’s missile tests.
And we are united in condemning Iran’s support for a variety of different terrorist groups.
We have recently seen an escalation by Iran, including the strike on a Saudi energy facility, and the shoot-down of an American drone.
At our meeting today, Allies called for restraint and de-escalation.
A new conflict would be in no-one’s interest.
So Iran must refrain from further violence and provocations.
With that, I am ready to take your questions.
Piers Cazalet [NATO Deputy spokesperson]: Yes please.
Teri Shultz [NPR]: It’s not me, but I’ll take it. [inaudible; 00:03:08]
Piers Cazalet: Sorry, okay, Teri.
Teri Shultz: Well, thank you, that’s what you meant, right?
Jens Stoltenberg [NATO Secretary General]: Yeah.
Teri Shultz: Thanks, Piers. Mr Secretary General, were any of the Allies specifically mentioning that they would like restraint on the part of the United States as well? And when the Iraqi Parliament says that it is going to kick out all foreign forces, if that should come to pass, does that mean . . . do you believe that the 500 or so NATO personnel would be leaving, or would you ask for a special dispensation to stay in Iraq? Thank you.
Jens Stoltenberg: At the meeting today, Allies expressed very strong support for the NATO Training Mission in Iraq, because the training mission in Iraq is an important part of the efforts of the Global Coalition to defeat Daesh and to make sure that Daesh or ISIS is not able to return. One of the best weapons we have in the fight against international terrorism is to train local forces, build local capacity, and that’s exactly what the Coalition is doing and what NATO is doing through our training mission in Iraq. We are there by invitation from the Iraqi authorities. We have suspended our training mission now, because of the security situation on the ground. But we are ready to restart the training when the situation on the ground makes that possible. We are in close contact with the Iraqi authorities, with the Iraqi government. I visited Iraq some weeks ago, or last fall. And then the Iraqi authorities and the Iraqi Prime Minister stressed the importance of NATO’s support.
NATO support, Coalition support to the Iraqi security forces is important for Iraq, but it is also important for us, because when we train them, help them in fighting ISIS and international terrorism, we’re also making our own countries more safe and secure. I will not speculate more than we will continue to . . . to work closely to . . . have close dialogue with the Iraqi government. And I strongly believe that the NATO Training Mission is good for both Iraq and for NATO Allies. And we are there by invitation of the Iraqi government. What was also clearly expressed at the meeting today was a call for restraint and de-escalation. All Allies have, several times, expressed their concerns about Iran’s destabilising activities in the region, including Iran’s support for different terrorist groups. And, of course, all Allies agree that Iran should never be able to develop nuclear weapons. We have also expressed again and again our concerns about Iran’s missile programme: missiles which are able to reach, also, many European Allied countries.
Piers Cazalet: Now, TV 2, sorry, just behind Teri.
Question [TV 2]: Should Iran retaliate in a way that makes the United States trigger Article 5, what would NATO’s response be then?
Jens Stoltenberg: I think the important thing now is to really try to de-escalate and to avoid further increase . . . increased tensions in the region. And I think that if I start to speculate on how we will react, this will not help to de-escalate, it will actually do the opposite. So we call on . . . on responsible behaviour. We believe in the importance of de-escalation and restraint. And that was a clear message from all Allies in the meeting today. I will not speculate, because that will actually contribute to the opposite. That will only increase tensions.
Piers Cazalet: Philip from NRK?
Philip Lote [NRK]: Philip Lote, NRK, Norwegian Broadcasting. Was the criticism of the US by European Allies . . . Allies during the meeting relating to the assassination of General Soleimani, and what is your view, General Secretary of the killing of General Soleimani?
Jens Stoltenberg: The meeting we had today was actually a meeting where we saw a very strong unity from all Allies on the importance of standing together in the fight against international terrorism, on the importance of the NATO Training Mission in Iraq, on the importance of the training activities and the efforts of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. All NATO Allies and NATO are part of the Global Coalition. And NATO contributes to the Global Coalition in different ways, including with our troops in Iraq. Again, NATO Allies are very concerned about Iran’s activities in the region. And the NATO Allies condemned, and have condemned many times, attacks on Coalition forces by Iran and supported groups. And that criticism, that position, was reiterated by many Allies in the meeting today.
Philip Lote: Did you understand the assassination of Soleimani, General Soleimani?
Jens Stoltenberg: This is a US decision. It is not a decision taken by either the Global Coalition nor NATO. But all Allies are concerned about Iran’s destabilising activities in the region, Iran’s support to different terrorist groups. And of course, we are extremely concerned about the recent attacks we have seen against civilian energy infrastructure in Saudi Arabia, or against Coalition bases in Iraq – bases which are important for our efforts to fight international terrorism in Iraq and in Syria.
Piers Cazalet: Time for one more. Michael from DPA.
Michael [DPA]: Hi, it’s Michael with German News Agency. You just said, Mr Sec Gen that the US briefed on the airstrike against Soleimani. The US justified this killing by saying that Soleimani developed plans to attack American diplomats. Did they show . . . did the US show some evidence on that today?
Jens Stoltenberg: The US provided the rationale behind the action against General Soleimani. And 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. I will not go into the details of that briefing. I will leave that to the United States. But we value and appreciate the briefings provided by the United States. I think this provides, or once again shows that NATO is a platform where European Allies, North American Allies, are able to come together and address security concerns for all of us.
Piers Cazalet: That’s all we have time for. Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen.
Jens Stoltenberg: Thank you.