The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, cancelled a long-established plan to hold talks with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, in Berlin on Tuesday, and instead travelled to Iraq to show US support for the Iraqi government during rising tensions with Iran.
The unusual last-minute schedule change follows brief talks between Pompeo and the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, on the sidelines of an Arctic Council meeting in Finland on Monday.
Pompeo earlier rang the German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, to explain the decision to drop his first meeting in Berlin as secretary of state and promised to reschedule soon.
Norbert Röttgen, the chair of the German foreign affairs committee, described the cancellation as “very regrettable”.
He said: “There is a lot to discuss about common challenges, but also about the internal relationship between Germany and the US. Even if there were unavoidable reasons for the cancellation, it unfortunately fits into the current climate in the relationship of the two governments.”
British and US sources said the Berlin cancellation did not mean talks planned for later on Wednesday between Pompeo, the UK prime minister, Theresa May, and the British foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, would also be dropped.
Pompeo is due to give the Margaret Thatcher lecture in London on the importance of the transatlantic relationship, weeks before Donald Trump’s state visit to Britain, timed to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the D-day landings.
With the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, due in Moscow this week, the US has been concerned by reports that Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, is to announce on Wednesday a partial retreat from the nuclear deal agreed in 2015.
The Iranian leadership feels under pressure to respond to a refusal by the US to extend sanctions waivers, especially on Iranian oil, and its imposition of secondary sanctions on any European companies that seek to to trade with Iran. The US has declared the Iranian Revolutionary Guards a terrorist group and announced the dispatching of an aircraft carrier and bomber taskforce to the Middle East, citing unspecified intelligence suggesting Iran may be planning attacks.
The US said this week that it is rushing an aircraft carrier group to the Middle East to deter or respond to any Iranian attack. US officials said there were indications Iran was planning to retaliate for the Trump administration’s stepped-up sanctions on the country, although the threat information remains vague.
On Tuesday night, a US military spokesman said B-52 bombers would be part of additional forces being sent to the Middle East.
In Baghdad, Pompeo met Iraq’s prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and other top officials to discuss the safety of Americans in Iraq and explain US security concerns amid rising Iranian activity.
“We talked to them about the importance of Iraq ensuring that it’s able to adequately protect Americans in their country,” Pompeo told reporters after the meeting.
Pompeo said the purpose of the meeting also was to let Iraqi officials know more about “the increased threat stream that we had seen” so they could effectively protect US forces.
Other urgent international security issues that may be preoccupying Pompeo include North Korea’s resumption of its missile programme and a possible Russian-endorsed assault on Idlib province in north-east Syria.
Emmanuel Macron, the French president, issued a statement of concern about Syria, saying: “The attacks of the regime and its allies, including [on] hospitals, have killed many civilians in recent days.”
The lack of an immediate explanation for the Pompeo cancellation came as Russia announced the US secretary of state would be travelling to the Black Sea resort of Sochi next week to hold talks with Lavrov and possibly Vladimir Putin.
The discussions will be the first since the Mueller inquiry declared Trump had not been guilty of collusion with Russia during his 2016 election campaign. Both sides may be testing whether the new political environment makes it easier for Washington and Moscow to cooperate.
The meeting also follows a phone call between Trump and Putin last week in which the US president downplayed the role of Russia in the Venezuela crisis. Lavrov lavished praise on Pompeo on Sunday for the seriousness of his approach to their talks.