Washington wants to step up pressure on Tehran

From the 13th to 14th February, Warsaw hosted a multilateral conference inviting delegates from 60 countries, including 34 ministers. Theoretically aimed to tackle issues such as nuclear weapons proliferation, terrorism, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Syria and Iraq’s reconstruction, the main topic undoubtedly became Iran and its “nefarious activities” across the Middle East.

VP Pence wants to step up pressure on Tehran:

Prime American officials were present in Warsaw. In addition to the White House’s Special Envoy on Iran and leader of the Iran Action Group Brian Hook, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence were present at the event.

Holding a hard line on Iran, the US Vice President promised further sanctions on Iran and criticised European countries for adopting “ill-advised policies” such as the Special Purpose Vehicle, which was registered in late January of this year. On the contrary, Pence congratulated countries such as Greece, Italy and Taiwan for dropping their imports of Iranian oil to zero and helping the US in applying its policy of maximum pressure on Iran.

Overall, the conference has been seen as an attempt by Washington to create a permanent forum whereby Arab and Israeli leaders would congregate to elaborate containment policies against the Islamic Republic. Saudi Arabia’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Adel Al Jubeir, set his conditions in stone for his country to accept a JCPOA-like agreement and trade with Iran. For this to happen, the Saudis want Iran to accept stringent supervision of nuclear plants (with 24/7 international supervision), no sunset clause, an end to Iran’s support of proxy militias and a cap on Iran’s ballistic missile programme.

Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was also present and pushed forward his rhetoric against the Islamic Republic by saying that the fortieth anniversary of the 1979 revolution would be the last one for the regime in Tehran and tweeting that the conference was a good opportunity for Israel to sit down with regional peers and “advance the common interest of war with Iran”. This tweet was quickly removed from circulation but reflected the stark differences between those present in Warsaw.

The hosts themselves for instance, do not share the most hardline positions against Iran. Instead, the Polish Foreign Minister defended the EU’s support for the JCPOA but conceded that the EU did not have enough political clout to stabilise the Middle East. Arab diplomats such as Al Jubeir, Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan (the Emirati Foreign Minister) and Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah (the Bahraini Foreign Minister) have behind closed doors expressly shared their opposition to regime change in Iran. Rather, what such leaders seem to expect from the Islamic Republic is that it starts behaving like a “normal country” and adopts change.

Minister of State Al Jubair stated that the best thing to happen to the region would be for Iran to drop its support for proxy militias and its arms development programme, as this would enable Riyadh to trade with Iran. However, the Saudi diplomat also expressed his disappointment with Iran’s duplicitous behaviour, stating that decades of engagement with Tehran unfortunately failed. Foreign Minister Al Khalifa highlighted the difference between Iran and its regime, saying that Iranians were a “peace-loving nation” but that the regime was one of the most “toxic” actors in the region.

The Emirati Foreign Minister informed the audience that nearly half a million Iranians visited his country every year and saw the difference in development with Iran. He also stated that engagement was needed with Iran and that the Iranian leadership should follow the example set by King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who have allowed women to go to football stadiums and embarked on ambitious economic reforms.

On the other hand, Netanyahu and Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani held a more hardline position. Talking at a rally from the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), an Islamist-Marxist group opposing the Islamic Republic, Rudy Giuliani spoke as a simple US citizen and called for an “overthrow” of Iranian leaders. Holding the same views, Netanyahu made it clear that the conference was mostly held to tackle Iran, and that there would not be any change to the region’s dismal situation unless the regime in Tehran was removed from power.

Those not present at the conference:

It is exactly for these strong positions against Iran that some countries decided not to attend or to just send lower-level delegates. Needing support for its ceasefire plan in Yemen and future trade deals after Brexit, Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt shortly attended the conference. Whilst France and Germany decided to send low-level officials, the EU’s High Representative Federica Mogherini snubbed the conference, citing opposing schedules as a reason for her non-attendance. Additionally, Lebanon’s Foreign Minister as well as the Palestinian Authority’s President Mahmoud Abbas, criticised the conference for seeking to “normalise” occupation of Palestinian lands, and refused to attend.

Russia and Turkey were two other important non-attendees. Both Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan were busy meeting Hassan Rouhani in Sochi to discuss the future of Syria in the aftermath of the US military pullout from the country. Both Turkey and Russia oppose the American strategy of maximum pressure on Iran, Turkey being a relatively important importer of Iranian crude and a neighbouring country that could potentially suffer a lot from any destabilisation of Iran.

Iran itself was not invited to the conference and its Foreign Minister called the forum an endeavour “dead on arrival”. Iran was hit by a terrorist attack on the first day of the conference, claiming the lives of 27 revolutionary guards in the eastern province of Sistan and Baluchistan. Foreign Minister Zarif drew the parallel between the attack and the conference, inferring that their occurrence on the same date could not be a coincidence. Iranian officials also criticised the EU for not adopting a tougher line against the conference and blamed Poland for hosting the event. Whilst the EU continues to support the JCPOA as long as Iran respects its conditions, it is true that frustration in European capitals is growing as a result of Tehran’s testing of ballistic missiles, space-launch vehicles and its alleged assassination plots across Europe.

A failed summit?

It remains to be seen whether the Warsaw summit was a flop. On the one hand, the conference was not organised by any international organisation, ended with no official statement and did not have an official list of attendees. The messages emanating from the summit were also dizzyingly contradictory, with some attendees calling for regime change and others only calling for a change of behaviour.

Moreover, the summit showed in the public eye the growing rift between the US and the EU when it comes to sensitive issues such as Iran. Arguably, it is possible that the Islamic Republic may have scored points yesterday as the conference did not end with a tangible plan of action and did not reflect a united front against Iran. Moreover, the host country, Poland, did not seem to have organised the event for the same reasons as some attendees. For Poles, the major motive behind such a summit was to guarantee the construction of a permanent American military base in order to confront threats emanating from Russia.

European officials such as Germany’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs voiced their lack of hope for any positive result out of the summit. For Niels Annen, the summit was blatantly an anti-Iran endeavour that could not gather full international support, nor help stabilise the region. Domestically in the US, the summit was called “a lacklustre and rambling conference” by former American ambassador to Sweden, Azita Raji. According to her, the summit was “another blow to US prestige and leadership” as it reflected the lack of international support for the Trump Administration’s Iran strategy. Although some analysts believe that the EU could gradually become friendly towards the latter strategy, and help include Iran into this sort of summit, the reality remains that the Warsaw conference failed to bridge differences between Washington and Brussels.

However, this failure might only be ephemeral. Bahrain’s Foreign Minister made it clear that the objective for this conference was to become an ongoing process, leading to further gatherings and the eventual formation of a truly united front to contain the Islamic Republic. Indeed, the Warsaw summit could potentially evolve into a regional coalition backed by the US, which could house Arab countries and Israel under the same military umbrella to tackle the Islamic Republic of Iran. This objective directly supports the American goal of establishing a Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA).

A meeting over MESA was already held during the United Nations’ General Assembly in late September 2018, whereby Mike Pompeo met with Arab envoys and apparently the Director of Mossad, Yossi Cohen. If such a coalition is built, Israel could well indeed become a “silent partner” to Arab armies. This could potentially mean that Arab states would militarily engage with Iran on Israel and the US’ behalf, while having the full support of Washington and Tel Aviv.

Of course, such a scenario and such an alliance remain illusory. Not all Gulf states share Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s resolve to confront Iran. Additionally, as long as the Qatar crisis is not solved, there won’t be a united GCC front to tackle Iran. Finally, it can even be argued that Saudi Arabia and the UAE do not wish to go as far as a full-blown conflict against Iran, as both states are already involved in the Yemeni war and are domestically busy with ambitious economic diversification programmes.

A platform for Arab-Israeli dialogue:

Nonetheless, the Warsaw conference included a positive development which is the overt and public demonstration of the intensification of ties between Arab Gulf states and Israel. Of course, this relation is lopsided, since Netanyahu is the only leader seeming to fully endorse nascent relations with Arab capitals. The Israeli Prime Minister called the summit “a historical turning point” as he was standing in the same room as “foreign ministers of leading Arab countries”, speaking “with unusual force, clarity and unity against the common threat of the Iranian state”.

Although Netanyahu and Arab foreign ministers did not stand side by side for the official picture, it is no surprise that such foreign ministers have expressed their desire for closer relations with Israel behind closed doors. In a video published by Netanyahu on YouTube and quickly removed from the server, leading diplomats from Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE showed their support for better Arab-Israeli relations. The Bahraini Foreign Minister even expressed that without Iran’s nefarious activities, Arab capitals’ relations with Israel would be far better than what they are now. In fact, the Warsaw Summit was the first time since 1991, when the Madrid Conference took place, that senior Arab leaders found themselves in the same room as the Israeli Prime Minister.

In particular, Oman is leading Arab overtures toward Israel. Present at the conference, Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah said that the people of the Middle East “suffered a lot because they have [been stuck in] the past”. He later claimed that this was a new era for the future and the prosperity of all nations, a statement that led Prime Minister Netanyahu to praise Oman’s “forward-looking and positive policy”, stating that the latter could lead to peace and prosperity in the region.

Arab leading diplomats highlighted the fact that most issues in the region such as Syria, Yemen and Iraq could not be solved without Iran changing its behaviour, and that therefore challenging the Islamic Republic was a key point in stabilising the region. This is a very important point for Israel as Netanyahu has fully understood the potential that Iran’s regional sway offers: it could potentially lead to normalised relations with Gulf Arab capitals, without actually being concomitant with the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Arab Center Washington DC, 23 January 2019, “Will an anti-Iran military alliance be formed in 2019”
FT, 13 February 2019, Najmeh Bozorgmehr, “Iran Foreign Minister plays down Warsaw summit on Mideast peace”
Haaretz, 14 February 2019, “Netanyahu leaks video of Arab leaders blasting toxic Iran in discreet discussion”
Haaretz, 14 February 2019, “In Warsaw, Dream of Arab NATO against Iran shows its cracks”
Politico, 14 February 2019, David M. Herszenhorn, “Ahead of peace meeting in Warsaw, Netanyahu threatens war with Iran”
Radio Free Europe, 14 February 2019, “Russia, Turkey, Iran see US Pullout From Syria As Positive Step, Putin Says”
The Time of Israel, 14 February 2019, “In Warsaw, Netanyahu and Omani FM vow to ‘seize the future’”
The Washington Post, 14 February 2019, Carol Morello and Anne Gearan, “Pence urges Europeans to withdraw from Iran nuclear deal, warns of more sanctions”
Image © MoFA Bahrain