The Trump Administration Can’t Get a United Front Against Iran
But the Warsaw conference did bring together Gulf Arabs and Israel against their common enemy.
Mike Pence traveled to Warsaw to deliver a scathing message to European allies for not standing with America against Iran. “The time has come for our European partners to stand with us and the Iranian people,” he declared.
Except some of the Europeans hadn’t even bothered to show up.
Nevertheless, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo heralded the breadth of the Middle East conference, citing representatives present from “60-plus” countries around the world. The absences were telling: Foreign ministers from Germany and France declined to show, sending lower-level officials instead. The EU’s foreign-affairs chief had a scheduling conflict. Representatives for key players in the Middle East—including the Palestinian Authority, Iran, Russia, and Turkey—also weren’t there. The last three were at a conference of their own, where they lauded the U.S. withdrawal from Syria and said Syrian troops should replace the Americans.
This was after the formal Warsaw agenda was broadened from its Iran-centric origins to accommodate the Europeans, who broadly support the Iran nuclear deal and have tried to preserve it since the U.S. withdrawal. Even Pompeo’s co-host, Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz, emphasized Europe’s commitment to the accord at a joint press conference with the U.S. secretary of state, though he did “condemn intolerable actions of Iran beyond its own territory, including Europe,” where the EU has accused Iran of directing four recent terrorist plots.
Pompeo didn’t take the bait in that setting; he barely mentioned Iran at all. But the administration’s focus on Iran was clear in other venues—for instance, in Pompeo’s appearance with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, where he noted destabilizing Iranian activities throughout the region and remarked, “You can’t achieve peace and stability in the Middle East without confronting Iran. It’s just not possible.”
Vice President Pence went further in his own speech, criticizing European allies of the United States for their efforts to do business with Iran despite the reimposition of American nuclear-related sanctions on the regime. And he referred explicitly to the growing rift between America and its European allies, declaring that such efforts “will only strengthen Iran, weaken the EU, and create still more distance between Europe and America.”
“I don’t see any real benefit to this,” said Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution. “It doesn’t speak well of the administration’s organizational capacity that after a lot of high-profile attention to this conference, there wasn’t a lot of there there.”
But if the Iran issue divides traditional allies, it unites traditional adversaries. What were perhaps the summit’s most significant moments of unity came from improbable places, namely between the Israelis and the Arabs. Netanyahu noted as much in an unfortunately phrased tweet on Wednesday, where he cited Israel and Arab countries’ “common interest of war with Iran”—before reissuing the tweet with a softer “combating Iran.”
It was something significantly short of Middle East peace, but still significant. It wasn’t the unveiling of Jared Kushner’s much-hyped peace plan; there was no photo op with Netanyahu and the Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs. There was, however, Netanyahu attending a session with Arab officials and meeting with the Omani foreign minister; there was the Bahraini foreign minister’s declaration to The Times of Israel that his country would “eventually” establish ties with Israel; there was even a former senior Saudi official giving an interview to an Israeli television station, albeit one in which he criticized what he called Netanyahu’s “hubristic attitude.” The official, Prince Turki bin Faisal, who once served as the kingdom’s head of intelligence, also noted, “We don’t need Mr. Netanyahu to tell us the dangers Iran poses.”
But the rapprochement will go only so far, said Hussein Ibish, a senior resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. The Arab states are worried about Iran, he said, but Netanyahu’s “war” gaffe didn’t help anybody. The Arabs “do not need a war. That they don’t need, and they know it.” And there are serious limits on how much they’re willing to cooperate formally with Israel absent progress on the Palestinian issue, he said. Prince Turki said as much in his interview: “From the Israeli point of view, Mr. Netanyahu would like us to have a relationship, and then we can fix the Palestinian issue. From the Saudi point of view, it’s the other way around.”
In the end, the Warsaw confab produced little of immediate substance but a call for more dialogue and the establishment of working groups on a range of issues, including cybersecurity and missile proliferation. The very number of parties in attendance would naturally limit their ability to forge agreements, given the wide range of perspectives at stake. If Pompeo hoped to stitch together more support from the Europeans for the Trump administration’s Iran policy, he instead succeeded in highlighting their divisions. And still the size of the gathering—which also included representation from Asia and Latin America—said something about the convening power of the United States. And perhaps it provided an implicit warning that in the face of European snubs, the U.S. may try to find its backing elsewhere. Whether American sanctions against Iran can survive without the Europeans is another question.