Hours after labelling Iran a “common enemy” for Washington and its Middle East allies, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a summit in Poland next month to counter Tehran's regional influence and “focus on Middle East stability and peace”.
The summit, as experts in Washington see it, is designed to expand the tent of the UN Security Council permanent members – the US, UK, France, Russia and China – plus Germany when it comes to discussing Iran on the international stage, but is also a repeat of past attempts, some of which have failed in building an anti-Iran coalition. The grouping, labelled the P5+1, were the signatories to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran on curbing its nuclear enrichment programs.
The gathering is scheduled to take place in Warsaw on February 13 and 14 and the representation will be on the ministerial level. “We'll bring together dozens of countries from all around the world,” Mr Pompeo said. Foreign ministers from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, and Morocco are expected to be invited according to one US source close to the State Department. Israel’s Channel 10 reported that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will also receive an invitation.
Speaking from Bahrain on Friday during a regional tour, Mr Pompeo defined the framework. “Countries will all come together to focus on Middle East stability and peace and freedom and security here in this region, and that includes an important element of making sure that Iran is not a destabilising influence,” he said. He added that Washington hopes it to be “an important part of our coalition-building effort".
Tehran immediately scolded the idea with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif lambasting the announcement and warning potential participants. “Reminder to host/participants of [the] anti-Iran conference: those who attended last US anti-Iran show are either dead, disgraced, or marginalised. And Iran is stronger than ever.” Mr Zarif attacked the Polish government, saying it “can't wash the shame: while Iran [under the Shah] saved Poles in WWII, it now hosts desperate anti-Iran circus.”
Mr Zarif’s tweet included a photo from 1996 summit in Egypt's Sharm el-Sheikh with then US president Bill Clinton walking hand in hand with late Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and late Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Peres died in 2016, Mr Mubarak stepped down as Egyptian president amid mass anti-government protests in 2011 and has since faced legal action for ordering the killing of protesters, damaging the economy, corruption and embezzlement during his 30 years in office and Mr Yeltsin died in 2007.
Washington is hoping for a similar effort that would bring European and regional countries together as a united front against Iran. But experts who spoke to The National had doubts over the long-term goals and concrete results from such a meeting.
Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, who has been supportive of Mr Pompeo’s Iran efforts, saw in the summit “an opportunity to expand [the Iran file] beyond the P5+1 to the dozens of countries deeply concerned about the malign and destructive activities of the Islamic Republic.”
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He hinted, however, at the divide between Western and Eastern Europe on the issue with the East showing more willingness to pressure Tehran. “I think the French and Germans, in particular, will remain reluctant to do anything too serious that would pose a risk that Iran would walk away from the nuclear deal” but added that there could be incremental steps from Eastern European countries such as Poland. The country's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has broken with the EU in the past on Iran and offered to be an "informal go-between" with the US.
But Suzanne Maloney, a deputy director of the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution, said Mr Pompeo's idea has been tried before. "Everything old is new again. The George W. Bush administration tried something very similar under the rubric of the 'GCC-plus-two,' the two being Egypt and Jordan," Ms Maloney told The National.
She warned that “these kinds of efforts to coalesce the broader Middle East around the common threat of Iran ultimately do not succeed, mostly because of the divergent interests and threat perceptions of each government, as well as the historical frictions between major Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar.” In that context, Ms Maloney said “little meaningful cooperation in shifting the balance of power in the region” would be expected from the summit.
Ali Vaez, an Iran scholar at the International Crisis Group, saw another challenge facing such summit – the US's own withdrawal from the nuclear deal last May. “The administration seems incapable of recognising that its coalition building attempts against Iran are doomed to fail as long as it remains in violation of the Iran nuclear deal,” Mr Vaez said. He also saw it as an attempt to “drive a wedge between Eastern and Western Europe that many in Paris, Berlin and London are not going to appreciate.”
The Trump administration is also hoping to host another summit in the first quarter of 2019 to launch the Middle East strategic alliance (MESA) with the GCC countries, Egypt and Jordan. Dubbed the Arab Nato, MESA would be a joint body based on security, economic and political agreements to bind the countries together more closely.