US conveys displeasure over Spain’s decision to withdraw frigate

The American embassy in Madrid has informally complained that the move to pull the ‘Méndez Núñez’ from a combat group in the Persian Gulf was communicated through military channels, not diplomatic ones

The Spanish frigate ‘Méndez Núñez.’
The Spanish frigate ‘Méndez Núñez.’JEREMIAH BARTELT (AFP)

The US embassy in Madrid is displeased with the fact that it was not informed about Spain’s decision to pull a frigate from a US-led naval mission in the Persian Gulf at a time of heightened tension between Washington and Iran.

In an informal message conveyed to the Spanish Foreign Ministry on Tuesday, embassy personnel complained about Spain’s failure to inform them of the move through diplomatic channels.

If the US feels that the carrier needs to go to a specific area on a specific mission that it never negotiated with Spain, we will provisionally withdraw from that combat group

Acting Defense Minister Margarita Robles

The decision to withdraw the Méndez Núñez from the US combat group was adopted by Spanish defense authorities, and communicated to the Pentagon via military channels. Neither the US embassy in Madrid nor the Spanish embassy in Washington were informed of the decision.

The acting spokesperson for the Spanish government, Isabel Celaá, said the withdrawal was justified because of the need for “prudence” and due to the “unpredictability” of US President Donald Trump, who claims Iran is threatening US interests in the Middle East. The US national security advisor, John R. Bolton, recently warned that “any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force.”

The Spanish Defense and Foreign ministries had spent days considering what to do in light of the rapidly deteriorating situation in the Gulf. It was acting Defense Minister Margarita Robles who took the final decision, according to sources consulted by EL PAÍS.

Acting Defense Minister Margarita Robles in Brussels.
Acting Defense Minister Margarita Robles in Brussels.EFE

“If the US government feels that the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln needs to go to a specific area on a specific mission that it never negotiated with Spain, we will provisionally withdraw from that combat group,” she said.

Robles has insisted that the decision is technical and military, and not political. She underscored that the agreement signed nearly two years ago between Madrid and Washington was to improve training and interoperability within the framework of the 500th anniversary of the first circumnavigation of the globe, and that if the US strayed from this program, so could Spain.

Shifting sands

On Tuesday morning, acting Foreign Minister Josep Borrell was queried about the matter at a news event focusing on the European elections of May 26, at which he is running as the top candidate for the Socialist Party (PSOE).

Asked if Spain had assessed the consequences of withdrawing the frigate, the normally loquacious Borrell replied with a laconic: “Yes, of course.” Then he added: “I’d rather not walk into shifting sands – it’s a complicated situation.” He concluded: “It shouldn’t be blown out of proportion.”

I’d rather not walk into shifting sands, it’s a complicated situation

Acting Foreign Minister Josep Borrell

The fact that the Méndez Núñez was part of a US Navy combat group is not unusual. Spain’s F-100 frigates are equipped with the US-made Aegis combat system, and these training exercises serve to certify the readiness of equipment and crews, as well as checking interoperability. Between September and December 2005, the Álvaro de Bazán joined the Theodore Roosevelt group and between May and June 2011 the Juan de Borbón joined the George H. W. Bush group.

Military sources said that the Persian Gulf had been included as a possible operation area in the original plan, but what has changed is the nature and goal of the mission there, which is being specifically aimed against Iran and meant as a deterrent or even as punitive action.

The Spanish frigate is now headed for Mumbai in India, where it will make a stop to wait for the US combat group. At that point, the Méndez Núñez will rejoin the fleet and continue the journey to San Diego, where the group is scheduled to arrive on October 13.

But Robles has admitted it is possible that the withdrawal will be permanent. In that case, the frigate would join the EU’s Operation Atalanta to fight piracy in the Indian Ocean.

English version by Susana Urra.

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