Warsaw coalition seeks action on Iran and Yemen at Middle East summit

US demands pressure on Tehran as foreign ministers gather in Poland

Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz (R) and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo give a joint press conference on February 12, 2019 in Warsaw. / AFP / Janek SKARZYNSKI
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America convened a high-level Middle East summit in Poland on Wednesday, designed to show international resilience in the face of Iranian aggression throughout the region.

Led by Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the gathering of foreign ministers and officials will address a broad agenda during two days of plenary sessions, including an all-day set of workshops at Warsaw’s main football stadium. Sixty countries and more than 30 foreign ministers from every continent are taking part, Mr Pompeo said. “This is a global coalition that is built to deliver on the important mission of reducing the risk that has emanated from the Middle East for far too long.”

A joint statement by Mr Pompeo and his co-host, Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz, said the meeting would cover a broad range of issues, in less formal sessions. These would include violent instability in Syria and Yemen plus a Middle East peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. Thematic topics would range across missile proliferation, energy security, emerging cyber-based threats, counterterrorism, and humanitarian aid.

“Our broad goal is to hear every nation's unscripted, candid ideas for how to make progress on these issues, and more,” the pair said in a joint editorial on CNN. “As our fellow foreign ministers know, multilateral meetings are often pro-forma exercises in giving prepared statements. Not this one. Our hope is that real conversations will drive real action.”

Among the headline-grabbing expected contributions is a speech by Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister. Mr Netanyahu has vowed to counter the threat to Israel from Iranian forces and proxies in Syria.

The conference will also hear from White House adviser Jared Kushner, who is President Donald Trump's son-in-law, over US plans for peace between Palestinians and Israelis.

The plan is being drafted by Mr Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, Mr Trump's envoy for Israeli-Palestinian peace, who dismissed a Palestinian claim that resolving their conflict would bring about peace in the region.

"The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is only one conflict in the region," Mr Greenblatt wrote on Twitter.

"Already we see historic cooperation in the region to deal with the civil wars in Syria and Yemen and malign activity by Iran & ISIS. By insisting that their case is the region’s sole and number 1 priority, it impedes nations from countering the common enemy of Iran."

As the price of high-level British participation – most of the big European states are being represented at level of foreign ministry political directors – Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt convened a quad meeting on Yemen with the US, UAE and Saudi Arabia on Wednesday afternoon. The discussions will focus on how international partners can help parties to implement existing agreements and move towards a second round of peace talks.

The stated purpose of the Quad was to increase pressure for the UN-sponsored process led by Martin Griffiths to move to the next stage. Mr Hunt said the window of opportunity for the type of breakthrough that would alleviate Yemen's humanitarian crisis and start to resolve the crisis was close. He said measures were needed to stabilise the economy; ensure the flow of salaries of civil servants, teachers and health workers; and to keep basic goods flowing into Yemen.

“Yemen’s devastating famine is a man-made economic crisis not a natural disaster. Today we can make clear strides to support the government of Yemen, including on practical steps to improve Yemenis’ lives, such as resuming the payment of government salaries to civil servants, he said. “This significant step could improve access to food for millions.

“We now have a shortening window of opportunity to turn the ceasefire into a durable path to peace.”

Diplomats acknowledge that British officials have expressed frustration with the Houthi militia’s reneging on pledges to turn over Hodeidah since the Stockholm Agreement was signed late last year. However frustration has grown over London’s failure to raise pressure on Iran for its role backing the rebel forces.

Alistair Burt, Britain's Minister of State for the Middle East, demonstrated the lengths that foreign policy mandarins have gone to make a distinction between the Iranian role in Yemen and that played by Tehran elsewhere. He acknowledged that Iran had armed a group that had “usurped’ power but then stressed the political solution would only come about through Yemeni reconciliation. “The Houthis are not a proxy of Iran in the same way you could argue in other places, and the government of the state of Yemen are not a proxy of their coalition partners, who are trying to restore them to rule,” he said.

David Ibsen, president of United Against a Nuclear Iran, pointed out that the ambivalence of European nations to confronting Iran was enabling its regional and international agenda. Not just Britain over Yemen but also the German and French stance towards salvaging the 2015 nuclear deal was undermining US efforts to put pressure on Tehran, he said. “Iran has furthered its terrorism against the West, facilitated criminal activities, and advanced its ambitions of regional hegemony.”

Mr Ibsen lamented the shadow European “intransigence” had cast over the opportunity presented by the Warsaw gathering. “The summit in Warsaw could be a turning point in Europe and the US,” he said.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iranian supreme leader, indicated his concern over the gathering, warning it would “bring nothing but material and spiritual harm”.