French Defense Minister Florence Parly took aim Saturday at “gradual US disengagement” in the Middle East and said its failure to respond to provocations blamed on Iran set off a dangerous chain of events.
Since May, tensions in the Gulf have escalated alarmingly with attacks against tankers, a US unmanned drone being downed, and strikes on key Saudi oil facilities in September.
Iran was blamed but denied involvement.
Despite the attacks on its Saudi ally and having one of its own drones shot down, the United States has avoided equivalent retaliation.
“We’ve seen a deliberate gradual US disengagement,” Parly said at the annual Manama Dialogue on regional security, adding it had been “on the cards for a while” but had become clearer with recent events.
Parly said the US drawback was a “slow process” and acknowledged that a US carrier strike group had just entered the Gulf.
“But the trend is, I think, quite clear and thus probably irrespective of who wins the next elections.”
The US aircraft carrier strike group Abraham Lincoln sailed through the Strait of Hormuz last week to show Washington’s “commitment” to freedom of navigation, the Pentagon said.
It was the first time a US aircraft carrier group has passed through the strait since Iran downed a US drone in June in the same area.
The French defense minister also put herself at odds with the US on maritime security in the Gulf, after Washington earlier this month launched a maritime coalition based in Bahrain to protect shipping in the strategic Strait of Hormuz.
France instead favors a European mission which Parly said should be able to start “very soon.”
“We want to make clear that our policy is separate from the ‘maximum pressure’ American policy,” she said, referring to Washington’s increasing sanctions against Tehran.
“I would like to add that we are not subtracting anything, we are adding, as a number of countries would not have participated in the American initiative anyway.”
She also homed in on strains on NATO, saying it remained the cornerstone of security in Europe but that it was “time to move from the brain-dead to the brainstorm.”
French President Emmanuel Macron stirred controversy this month saying he believed NATO was undergoing “brain death,” lamenting a lack of coordination between Europe and the United States, in an interview with The Economist magazine.
Parly said proposals will be laid on the table at the alliance’s summit in London in December including for a group of “wise persons or elders to think about the future of NATO.”