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UK foreign secretary warns of 'First World War risk' in Middle East

Region is a 'tinderbox' in which any small event could trigger a catastrophic conflict, Jeremy Hunt says during visit to Iran
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt (L) with Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif (AFP)

A single small event could spark off a First World War-style catastrophe in the Middle East, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt warned while visiting Iran on Monday.

He issued the warning while calling on Tehran to support a UK-backed peace plan for Yemen, to remain in the 2015 nuclear deal and to release imprisoned Nazaneen Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian woman accused of spying who has been held in Iran since 2015.

He told The Guardian newspaper that new US sanctions against Iran, imposed after President Donald Trump withdrew Washington's support for an international deal that had seen Iran abandon its nuclear programme, and regional tensions with Saudi Arabia had created a "First World War risk".

"Any small event can trigger a chain of events with utterly catastrophic consequences,” Hunt said.

"This is a part of the world which is frankly a tinderbox and so many things can go wrong here. And Iran is one of the big players and we are very, very keen to move towards peace in Yemen, that's our number one priority at the moment."

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Last week Hunt met with Saudi Arabia's King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, where he also pushed for support for a Yemen peace deal.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have backed rival sides in Yemen, where the Saudi-led coalition intervened in 2015 after Iran-backed Houthi rebels had taken control of the capital, Sanaa, and forced the country's internationally recognised government into exile in Riyadh.

Trump abandoned the nuclear deal in May and Washington has reimposed sanctions on Iran to force Tehran to drop its ballistic missile programmes, further curb its nuclear work and limit its support for proxy militias from Syria to Lebanon and Yemen.

Other signatories of the deal - the European Union, France, Germany, Britain, Russia and China - have been trying to salvage it. Iran has warned it could scrap the accord if the EU fails to preserve its economic benefits from US pressure.

"The Europeans should accelerate their efforts to save the deal... We are ready for all scenarios, including a return to pre-deal era," the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, told Hunt, Iranian state television reported.

Any small event can trigger a chain of events

- Jeremy Hunt

Hunt said Britain was committed to the nuclear deal and discussed European efforts to maintain nuclear-related sanctions relief, Iran's state news agency IRNA reported.

"The Iran nuclear deal remains a vital component of stability in the Middle East by eliminating the threat of a nuclearised Iran. It needs 100 percent compliance though to survive," Hunt said in a statement ahead of the visit.

Hunt also called for the immediate release of Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has spent two-and-a-half years in prison in Iran after being charged with spying.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who works for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the media organisation's philanthropic arm, was arrested at Tehran's Imam Khomeini airport in April 2016 with her daughter, Gabriella.

She is serving a five-year jail sentence for spying, a charge she has always contested.

“I arrive in Iran with a clear message for the country’s leaders: putting innocent people in prison cannot and must not be used as a tool of diplomatic leverage," he said.

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