Robert HARNEIS -TDO- (FRANCE) - The leading Spanish newspaper El Pais reports that Spain’s acting defense minister, Margarita Robles, said on Tuesday that the Spanish frigate Méndez Núñez has been pulled out of a US-led naval group in the Persian Gulf because American authorities have changed the original mission.

In a move to minimize the disagreement with the United States, she insisted the move is technical, not political, and that the ship will rejoin the fleet once it reaches the Indian Ocean

Robles insisted that Spain respects Washington’s choice. “We respect the decision and when things go back to what was planned with the Spanish Navy, we will resume the mission,” said the minister. The Spanish frigate will rejoin the fleet once it reaches the Indian Ocean. Spain’s commitment is to the European Union and international organizations, and we will always adopt our common positions from there, she said.

Speaking in Brussels at a meeting of EU ministers, Robles said that Spain and the US had reached a deal two years ago to include the Méndez Núñez, with 215 sailors on board, in a training mission that also commemorates the 500th anniversary of the first circumnavigation of the Earth by the explorers Ferdinand Magellan and Juan Sebastián Elcano.

But on May 5 Washington announced it would send the fleet led by the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln to the Persian Gulf amid growing tension between the US and Iran.

“I am legally-minded and when I see that there is a deviation from the agreement, I feel that it is better to temporarily suspend it,” said Robles.

Spain’s acting foreign minister, Josep Borrell, also downplayed Spain’s decision. After admitting that “it is a complicated situation,” he said that “it shouldn’t be taken so hard.”

Spain wants to avoid being involuntarily dragged into any kind of conflict with Iran amid rising tensions between Washington and Tehran. The fleet has already crossed the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, which joins the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, and is headed to the Strait of Hormuz where it will enter the Persian Gulf. It will be doing so, however, without the Spanish vessel.

The integration of the Méndez Núñez in the combat group, in which no other non-US ship is present, was planned with the aim of improving interoperability and joint training. The mission was designed to last six months, from the end of April until October 31, when the Spanish vessel was due to arrive in the port of San Diego California after having crossed the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea and the Pacific. The group includes the Lincoln, which carries 85 aircraft on board, as well as a guided missile cruiser, three destroyers, a logistics ship and a submarine.

On May 8, during a visit to the US air base in Morón de la Frontera in southern Spain, Robles made clear that “Spain’s commitment is to the European Union and international organizations, and from there we will always adopt our common positions.” Distancing herself from unilateral moves made by the US, the defense minister insisted that Spain is a “serious and trustworthy partner,” but that its armed forces are only bound by agreements made with the European Union and NATO.

In early May, Tehran announced that it would no longer be observing the commitments it took on as part of its nuclear deal, an agreement from which Washington withdrew a year ago. US President Donald Trump reacted by announcing new sanctions against Iran, focused on the strategic sector of industrial metals. The EU has distanced itself from these sanctions and is committed to saving the deal with Iran.

While the military deployment had been planned several months ago, US National Security Advisor John Bolton stated that its aim was to “send a clear and unmistakable message” to Iran that “any attack on United States’ interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force.”

The decision means that the Méndez Núñez will continue in the area, but without entering the Gulf.  From California, the frigate is due to return to Spain via the Panama Canal, completing its journey around the globe.

Tensions have been further heightened by reports of a mysterious sabotage attack on four oil tankers in UAE waters near Fujairah.

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