As US Plans Summit on Iran, European and Middle Eastern Nations Choose Sides

By Edward Carney

On Friday, two days after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a speech in Egypt aimed at shoring up opposition to Iranian influence in the region, the State Department announced that Pompeo would also be leading a global summit in Poland next month, with an emphasis on the Middle East and more specifically on Iran. Reuters quoted Pompeo as saying the meeting would “bring together dozens of countries from all around the world,” though he did not specify which nations, if any, had already agreed to attend.

Part of the reason for this lack of specificity may be that many leading US allies, as well as partners whose allegiances are divided between the US and Iran, are still struggling with unresolved questions about the direction their foreign policies will take as tensions between the two adversaries continue to escalate. Pompeo’s current, nine-country tour of the Middle East highlight’s the White House’s apparent optimism regarding support for its policies among Iran’s immediate neighbors. But the forthcoming Warsaw summit points to ongoing efforts to convince European nations to likewise join in the administration’s effort to exert “maximum pressure” on Iran through economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation, in order to convince the Iranian regime to bring an end to its “malign activities”.

Presently, there are both positive and negative signs coming from both the European and the Middle Eastern targets of the White House’s outreach. In the first place, the European Union has shown more and more willingness to openly confront the Islamic Republic over threats and activities that are considered to be in violation of international law. On Tuesday, for instance, the EU announced the imposition of new sanctions on the Iranian intelligence service over several credible reports of Iran-backed terror threats, including a plot to bomb an international rally organized near Paris by the National Council of Resistance of Iran on June 30 of last year.

The Reuters report on next month’s Warsaw summit concluded by describing the new EU sanctions as a significant shift in policy for countries that have so far been wary of giving up on Iranian trade deals or providing the Islamic Republic with potential incentive to leave the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. That agreement remains in force among six of its seven signatories, although the US withdrew from it last May after President Trump declared Tehran to be in violation of the “spirit” of the deal, owing to its malign behavior in the region and its ongoing development of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles.

European concern over these issues has also led to positive signs of compliance with, or participation in, the US sanctions that returned to force after the US withdrawal. Since that time, the EU has teased the notion of a “special purpose vehicle” to facilitate transactions with the Islamic Republic, but details of the mechanism have been slow to emerge. What’s more, it was suggested in December that the SPV may not even cover purchases of crucially important Iranian petroleum, casting doubt on both the level of European commitment and the likelihood of Iran recognizing sufficient incentives to remain in the deal.

Against the backdrop of those doubts, France and other EU member states have continued to press the Iranian regime over their disregard for the clearly-stated expectations of the international community. On Friday, French Foreign Ministry spokesperson Agnes von der Muhll reiterated that Iran’s ongoing development and testing of ballistic missiles violates the United Nations Security Council resolution that governed implementation of the 2015 nuclear agreement. France “calls on Iran to immediately cease all ballistic missile-related activities designed to carry nuclear weapons,” she added.

Tehran responded with predictable dismissiveness, vaguely describing the French criticism as “irresponsible and incorrect”. Bahram Qassemi, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson went on to say that the Iranian missile program is the “nation’s natural right.” The Iranian regime has long maintained that it will not limit its missile development activities or enter into any negotiations with Western powers over the issue. And just one day before the exchange between the Iranian and French Foreign Ministries, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif declared that plans for the nation’s aerospace program would remain unchanged even in the face of growing economic and political pressure from the United States.

In recent days, regime officials have boasted of a supposed plan to launch two satellites into orbit using Iranian rockets that are effectively identical to the ballistic missiles that might carry an Iranian nuclear weapon over extremely long distances. Iranian media has suggested that the satellite launch might take place in early February to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution. But this would also put the launch ahead of the schedule for the Warsaw summit on February 13th and 14th, thereby potentially giving the US additional fuel for its argument in favor of further confrontational shifts in European policy.

The benefits of such a shift for the US may, however, be undercut if the Islamic Republic manages to interfere with American plans to maintain a vigorous resistance to Iranian influence among other nations of the Middle East. Tehran is certainly working toward that end, as evidenced by meetings between Iranian and Iraqi officials that took place on Thursday, just one day after Secretary of State Pompeo held his own meetings with Iraqi leaders as part of his Middle East tour.

The office of the Iraqi prime minister said that his meeting with Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh “confirmed the deep relations between the two countries, the two neighboring peoples and the importance of strengthening them in areas that serve the interests of the two peoples.” Newsweek reported upon the meeting on Thursday and highlighted its potential significance to broader concerns about Iran’s regional influence. It pointed out, for instance, that Iraq has provided some support to Iran and Russia in their mutual defense of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, and that Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari recently called upon the Arab League to reinstate Syrian membership after it was suspended due to Assad’s human rights violations.

This support of Assad’s position constitutes de facto support of Tehran’s, given Assad’s long relationship with Tehran and his newfound indebtedness to them for preserving his office in the midst of an eight-year rebellion and civil war. But even though the apparent expansion of networks of Iranian allies constitutes a threat to Western interests in the region, that very same trend may help the US to galvanize resistance against Iran in other areas of the Middle East.

The National Council of Resistance of Iran highlighted this possibility on Friday when it reported that officials in Afghanistan had responded with outrage to the confirmation of Iranian efforts to collaborate with the Taliban. “I think it would be impossible to have a future Afghanistan without any role for the Taliban,” said Iran’s Foreign Minister after acknowledging the secret talks had been rumored for several months. This led to criticism from Afghanistan’s Deputy Foreign Minister, who said that relations between the two countries would be weakened if Iran continued to circumvent the Afghan government in this way.

The NCRI also quoted Shah Hussain Murtazawi as saying that the Iranian regime was defending the Taliban’s arguments because “Iran is worried that the freedoms in Afghanistan will set an example” for the Iranian people, many of whom participated in anti-government protests throughout the country over the past year, wherein they pushed for an end to restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly, as well as a wholesale change in the Iranian government.

Both the Afghan criticism and Iran’s domestic unrest point to potential sources of additional support as the US works to build an international network of opposition to Iran’s regional influence. Yet Iran has made significant in-roads in places like Syria and Iraq, while the nations of Europe apparently remain uncertain about the trade-offs involved in either tolerating Iranian threats or sacrificing economic relationships with Iranian partners. Under these circumstances, it remains very much uncertain what the outcome of the forthcoming summit in Poland will be, or even which countries will choose to attend.