By Benjamin Lutz and Josef Nasr
On Wednesday February 13-14, 2019, a consortium of more than 60 countries met in Warsaw, Poland, to discuss a “Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East.” This conference was United States (US)-convened and largely seen as a platform for to lambast Iran. US Vice President Mike Pence delivered a harsh critique of Britain, France, and Germany, all countries that helped negotiate the 2015 Iranian nuclear accord.[i] Pence called out his European allies for trying to “break American sanctions against Iran’s murderous revolutionary regime.”[ii] This statement was a direct reply against a recent scheme of the European Union to facilitate trade with Iran as a way of continuing on with the nuclear deal without US support. Specifically, the European Union (EU) is trying to bypass the new sanctions regime using INSTEX (The Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges), which will enable trade with Iran through a joint special-purpose vehicle that will not use dollars as its base currency.[iii] On the other hand, the three European states argued that President Trump made a grave error in abandoning the treaty in 2018, saying the Iranians were compliant with the aspects and timeline of the accord.[iv]
Amid this tense situation between the US and the EU, the host state adopted a conciliatory approach as Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Jacek Czaputowicz, declared, after a meeting with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, that his country was still a country of the EU but cooperation with the US was also essential due to the incapacity of the EU to effectively control the situation in the Middle East.[v] The two states’ alignment during this conference could also be verified by the publication of a conjointly written column by Czaputowicz and Pompeo in the Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita, in which they described the Warsaw conference as a historical meeting showing the common objectives of its participants, hoping it will lead to concrete actions and decisions in order to reestablish peace in the Middle East.[vi] These declarations would be meant to reaffirm Poland’s place on the world and European scales, Czaputowicz stating that his country was still an important actor and partner to influence the international political scheme.
The purpose of the conference was meant to be about broader Middle East security, yet Pence and Pompeo continually shifted the conversation to Iran. Pompeo’s main point focused on Iran’s “malign influence in Lebanon, in Yemen, in Syria, in Iraq; the three H’s” the Houthis, Hamas, and Hezbollah.”[vii] This emphasis on Iran, though, seemed to provide common ground for Arab and Israeli leaders to share thoughts.[viii]
Thus, the Warsaw conference was a phenomenal moment for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to showcase his tougher stance on security and potential for collaboration with his Arab neighbors.[ix] This summit provided Netanyahu (and Israel at large) the opportunity to be photographed with Arab leaders who do not have formal diplomatic relations with Israel.[x] Although, most likely, no tangible decisions were made as a result of this conference, the paradox of the situation is that due to the focus on Iran, a new diplomatic framework is being woven that it seems never would have come together if it was not for the shared strategic interests of enemy nations.[xi] Netanyahu hence described the summit as a “historic shift”, insisting on the “common interest of war with Iran”xvii shared with his Arab counterparts. A video released by the Prime Minister’s office showed recordings of several Arab leaders claiming their support to Israel and stating that accentuating the pressure on Iran was a more urgent matter than reaching a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement[xii].
On the other hand, Israel’s presence at the summit was also marked by a controversy concerning some statements of the Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs Israel Katz who said that Poles “feed from antisemitism along with their mother’s milk”. The Polish government has therefore asked for an apology from its Israeli counterpart for “racist and insulting declarations”, and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki notably decided not to send any representatives to the Visegrad summit in Jerusalem. US ambassador in Warsaw Georgette Mosbacher commented in a tweet that “there is no place for insulting declarations like Mr. Katz’s between close allies such as Poland and Israel”,xvi the incidence having been classified as a “diplomatic catastrophe”.
This conference came shortly after Russia hosted its own summit in Sochi with Iranian and Turkish leaders to particularly discuss a diplomatic settlement to the Syrian civil war; knowing that the three are critical voices of US policies in the region and were noticeably absent from the Warsaw conference.[xiii]
Furthermore, Lebanon was not in attendance to either conference. It publicly stated its intention to boycott the Warsaw conference as it saw it through the guise of an American-led conference on Middle East security to be solely an international effort to isolate and be hostile to Iran.[xiv] Lebanon has been following a policy of disassociation from regional conflicts although its proximity to Syria and the undeniable influence of Iran on Hezbollah makes this policy difficult to sustain.[xv] The presence of Israel at the summit, with which Lebanon is currently in conflict, could also explain this absence.
Hezbollah’s leader Hasan Nasrallah spoke out against the Warsaw conference dismissing it as “weak and stale” and warned that Arab leaders moving toward normalization with Israel were only “a tool” in Israel’s hands.[xvi] He was adamant that the conference was nothing more than a propaganda tool against Iran and will ultimately not be successful.[xvii] On Monday February 11th, 2019, two days before the conference, Nasrallah met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, reaffirming the alliance between Iran and Hezbollah.[xviii]
Overall, it seems that this conference was a tangible way for the United States to showcase its disdain against Iran and try to directly persuade other nation-states at the conference. Some of the major players in the region, mainly Russia, Turkey, Iran, and Lebanon, were notably absent, making this conference no more than a vehicle for American policy towards Iran to be spotlighted instead of the conference’s main goal of finding a framework for Peace and Security in the region. The choice of the location (Warsaw) can moreover be explained by the recent degradation of the relations between the US and the European Union: the support showed by Pompeo to the governments of Eastern European countries such as Bulgaria or Poland, who frequently oppose themselves to the general governance of the EU on issues such as migration or multilateralism, could be interpreted as a will to accentuate the cleavage between Western and Eastern Europe; the European project being radically opposed to the current American government’s politics on an ideological point of view (the latter drawing closer to unilateralism).
It remains to be seen whether this summit could in a near future reveal itself to be the founding stone of a new alignment of powers in the Middle East and of a possible American attempt to put an end to the European project, presenting the world as a ‘more and more fragmented puzzle’, as the Munich Conference Report described it in its analysis.
[i]Gordon, Michael R. and David E. Sanger (2015). Deal Reached on Iran Nuclear Program; Limits on Fuel Would Lessen With Time New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/15/world/middleeast/iran-nuclear-deal-is-reached-after-long-negotiations.html
[ii]Sanger, David E. and Katie Rogers (2019). Mike Pence Lashes European Allies for Their Stance on Iran. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/14/world/europe/pompeo-pence-us-iran.html
[iii]Bar’el, Zvi (2019). In Warsaw, Dream of Arab NATO Against Iran Shows Its Cracks. Haaretz. https://www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/.premium-in-warsaw-no-promise-of-an-alliance-against-iran-but-maybe-an-arab-nato-1.6936403
[iv]Landler, Mark (2018). Trump Abandons Iran Nuclear Deal He Long Scorned. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/08/world/middleeast/trump-iran-nuclear-deal.html
[v] Pompeo, Mike and Jacek Czaputowicz (2019). Mike Pompeo w Warszawie: USA są przeciwne Nord Stream 2. Rzeczpospolita.
[vii]Sanger, David E. and Katie Rogers (2019). Mike Pence Lashes European Allies for Their Stance on Iran. New York Times.
[viii]Ahren, Raphael (2019). In clip leaked by PMO, Arab ministers seen defending Israel, attacking Iran. Times of Israel. https://www.timesofisrael.com/in-clip-leaked-by-pmo-arab-ministers-seen-defending-israel-attacking-iran/
[ix]Lutz, Benjamin (2019). A Tale of Two Benjamins: How the Top Candidates in Israel’s Upcoming Election Are Further Securitizing the Region. MEIRSS. .org/a-tale-of-two-benjamins-how-the-top-candidates-in-israels-upcoming-election-are-further-securitizing-the-region/
[x]Bar’el, Zvi (2019). In Warsaw, Dream of Arab NATO Against Iran Shows Its Cracks. Haaretz.
xvii Associated Press (2019). The Latest: Israeli leader hopes to rally Arabs against Iran. The Washington Post. https://wapo.st/2SIMWTa?tid=ss_wa-amp
[xii] Heller, A (2019). Arab Leaders Play Down Palestinian Issue in Leaked Video. Associated Press. https://www.apnews.com/12eab3b948bb415e9f6300601be9939b
xvi Le Figaro (2019). Accusations d’antisémitisme: Varsovie attend des excuses d’Israël. Le Figaro. http://www.lefigaro.fr/flash-actu/2019/02/19/97001-20190219FILWWW00169-accusations-d-antisemitisme-varsovie-attend-des-excuses-d-israel.php
[xiii]Wintour, Patrick and Oliver Holmes (2019). Mike Pence chides US allies at Warsaw summit on Iran. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/feb/14/us-and-israel-say-confrontation-with-iran-needed-for-peace
[xiv]Associated Press (2019). Lebanon to boycott Warsaw conference seen as hostile to Iran. Associated Press. https://www.apnews.com/6e03112ffbf943648d19990b18d931e0
[xv]Associated Press (2019). Lebanon to boycott Warsaw conference seen as hostile to Iran. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/lebanon-to-boycott-warsaw-conference-on-mideast-iran/2019/02/11/b12c7224-2e09-11e9-8781-763619f12cb4_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.ae90d735abc5
[xvi]TOI Staff (2019). Nasrallah: Warsaw meet unmasked Israel-Gulf ties, Arab leaders Israel’s ‘tools’. The Times of Israel. https://www.timesofisrael.com/nasrallah-warsaw-meet-unmasked-israel-gulf-ties-arab-leaders-israels-tools/
[xvii]Xinhua (2019). Hezbollah leader says Warsaw summit is not threat to Iran, Hezbollah. Xinhua. http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2019-02/17/c_137827343.htm
[xviii]NNA (2019). Nasrallah meets Zarif. NNA. http://nna-leb.gov.lb/en/show-news/100523/Nasrallah-meets-Zarif