US push against Iran highlights differences between Washington, EU

Pence accused Washington’s European allies of trying to break US sanctions against Tehran.
Sunday 17/02/2019
US Vice President Mike Pence peaks at a conference on Peace and Security in the Middle East in Warsaw, Poland, February 14. (AP)
US Vice President Mike Pence peaks at a conference on Peace and Security in the Middle East in Warsaw, Poland, February 14. (AP)

ISTANBUL - An effort by the United States to forge a broad international alliance against Iran’s influence in the Middle East has highlighted a widening gap between Washington and its Western European allies as well as NATO partner Turkey.

The Trump administration and Israel used a meeting in Warsaw to warn that Iran poses a danger and to trumpet a coalition that includes Washington, the Jewish state as well as Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Yemen and Jordan.

The initiative was overshadowed by disagreements between the United States and its European allies over how to deal with Iran. US Vice-President Mike Pence called on Europeans to follow Washington’s lead in leaving the international nuclear agreement with Tehran, a demand immediately rejected by Germany. European powers are determined to stick with the 2015 pact.

 “I doubt the meeting helped much with advancing Washington’s agenda,” said Ali Vaez, director of the Iran project at the International Crisis Group. “The Europeans remain steadfast in their commitment to the nuclear deal and the anti-Iran Club of Four (the United States, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia) did not expand,” Vaez said via e-mail.

As the Warsaw conference was winding up February 14, Russia, Iran and Turkey convened a trilateral summit in Sochi, Russia, to strengthen an alliance that is eager to hasten the US military exit from Syria and reduce Washington’s role elsewhere in the region.

“You can’t achieve peace and stability in the Middle East without confronting Iran,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said before talks with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the Warsaw conference.

Netanyahu spoke of a “historical turning point” in Poland. “In a room of some 60 foreign ministers and representatives of dozens of governments, an Israeli prime minister and the foreign ministers of the leading Arab countries stood together and spoke with unusual force, clarity and unity against the common threat of the Iranian regime,” he said.

Netanyahu raised eyebrows before the conference by releasing a message that included a reference to a “common interest of war with Iran.” The wording was later changed to “combating Iran.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif responded to Netanyahu’s choice of words by commenting on Twitter: “We’ve always known Netanyahu’s illusions. Now, the world — and those attending #WarsawCircus — know, too.”

Iranian President Hassan Rohani blamed the United States and its allies for a suicide bombing in southeastern Iran that killed 27 members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The force said a vehicle laden with explosives was used to attack a bus transporting IRGC members in Sistan-Baluchistan province.

The Warsaw conference was part of a US strategy to build an international front involving Israel and Arab allies to counter Iran, seen by Washington as the main source of instability in the Middle East. The United States pulled out of the nuclear deal with Iran last year, arguing that the international community needed to employ a tougher approach to confront Tehran.

The meeting in Poland was weakened by the refusal of Russia, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and major EU powers to take part.Iran was not invited to the Warsaw conference.

Moscow and the European Union want to keep the nuclear deal with Iran alive and France, Germany and the United Kingdom, while condemning Tehran’s ballistic missile programme, have opened a new channel for non-dollar trade with Iran to sidestep US sanctions and keep the nuclear deal afloat. Turkey has told Iran it is ready to join the European trade mechanism, the Iranian Mehr news agency reported.

Pence accused Washington’s European allies of trying to break US sanctions against Tehran. Some leading US partners in Europe “have led the effort to create mechanisms to break up our sanctions,” he said in Warsaw.

Another major player missing in the Warsaw meeting was Turkey, a NATO member and neighbour of Iran. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan travelled to Sochi to meet with Rohani and Russian President Vladimir Putin while leaving it to the Turkish Embassy in Warsaw to follow events in the Polish capital. Turkey is opposed to US sanctions against Iran and has criticised Washington’s decision to leave the nuclear deal.

Erdogan joined Putin and Rohani in listing priorities that highlighted Turkish-US differences.

Speaking before a meeting with Putin, Erdogan stressed his aim of driving a Syrian-Kurdish militia allied with the United States away from the border.

Putin said a US withdrawal from Syria would be “a positive step that would help stabilise the situation in this region, where ultimately the legitimate government should re-establish control.” Rohani said the US decision to leave Syria was “good news.”