Warsaw Conference on the Middle East: All Thunder and No Rain?



The Warsaw Conference on the Middle East,  which lasted for two days (13 and 14 February) in the Polish capital, coincided with the 40th anniversary of Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution. The conference, organized by the United States, achieved a few goals. It embarrassed Iran, which was not invited and it created momentum to face Iran’s threat in the region. But it failed to build a strong global anti-Iran coalition.
Iran expressed its surprise that it was not invited to the conference to offer its understanding into regional peace and stability, given its influence in the Middle East. As leaders and representatives from 60 countries gathered in Warsaw, President Hassan Rouhani responded to this conference by stating that plans were underway to  create a new Middle East.
One of the unspoken goals of the Warsaw conference appeared to be to create a consensus for regime change in Tehran. The conference was originally supposed to focus on Iran before its title changed to “Promoting a Future of Peace and Stability in the Middle East.” Though Washington insisted that the conference was not anti-Iran, many participants discussed Iran and its role in the region.
The US was somewhat timid about expressing the Warsaw conference’s hidden anti-Iran agenda, and it insisted that it wants to negotiate with the country’s leaders. But Rudy Guiliani, the former mayor of New York and President Trump’s lawyer, spoke at an anti-Iran rally in Warsaw while the conference proceeded, calling Iran’s leaders a bunch of “assassins” and “murderers.”
The rally, organized by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), also known as the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, or MEK, was not the only anti-Iran rally that took place in Warsaw. Iranian monarchists also held protests in the east European capital, but the Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz insisted that the conference did not focus on Iran but a wider agenda of curbing missile armament, cybersecurity and fighting terrorism. Robert Winnicki, a legislator from Poland’s National Movement party, met the Iranian ambassador Masoud Edris Kermanshahi ahead of the conference to give assurances of his country’s commitment to the Iranian nuclear deal signed with the world powers in 2015.
The mixed messages from Warsaw and the reportedly ad hoc last minute arrangements for the conference pointed to the confusion over how best to deal with Iran.   Lebanon, Qatar, and the Palestinian Authority refused to take part in any serious manner, in part to object to US peace plan proposals that were to be unveiled in Warsaw to resolve the impasse between the Arabs and Israel. Afghanistan and Oman took part in the discussions in Warsaw but as they also have close relations with Iran,  they were reluctant to frame the conference as being anti-Iran.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in Warsaw to show unity with the Gulf states that remain concerned by Iran’s threats. Running for re-election in April while under threat of a corruption indictment in Israel, Netanyahu was eager for a major victory in Warsaw.  He spoke in Hebrew at the conference suggesting that war with Iran was an option but his office quickly dismissed this blaming it on a mistranslation of his words. But Netanyahu  clearly did not get the memo that Iran was to be discussed obliquely and for his conversations with Iran’s Arab neighbors to be kept secret. A series of tweets on his arrival in Warsaw said that Israel and the Arabs would “advance the common interest of war with Iran.”
Netanyahu’s actions had repercussions. His political rivals in Israel criticized him for disclosing details of his discussions with Arab leaders. In the Arab world, statements were issued insisting on a fair peace deal for Palestine, and there were concerns over how Iran would react. Netanyahu’s meetings with a number of Arab officials in Warsaw sent a hostile signal to Iran, which in reaction staged a war game in the Gulf days after.
There was fear of deepening rifts between the US and other world powers over Iran at the Warsaw conference. France, Germany, Russia, and China did not send their foreign ministers to Poland. France sent a senior diplomat to Warsaw and Germany dispatched its Deputy Foreign Minister Niels Annen. Britain dispatched its Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt who said he went to Warsaw to lead a session on Yemen. The European Union foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, cited another commitment  for her absence at the conference.
The conference avoided taking an openly hostile position against Iran and this was a sign that the international community was still unprepared to have a face-off with Iran. The conference’s final statement did not directly condemn Iran for its actions in the Middle East.
Major powers like China and Russia seem more concerned by the Trump administration than by Iran. China’s media called the Warsaw conference “all thunder and no rain.” Its Foreign Minister Wang Yi backed his Iranian counterpart’s statements on Iran’s right to self-defense made days after the conference at the Munich Security Conference.
Of concern to Russia was that the Eastern and Central European countries sent their foreign ministers to the conference in Warsaw. Moscow said that the Warsaw conference would create more differences in the Middle East. Russia also insisted that building a coalition against Iran would not help in resolving the crises in the Middle East .
During the conference, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited northeast Poland to witness live-fire military exercises. Pompeo aimed to signal to the Russians that Washington wanted to build up a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe, which Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly condemned. The US Vice President Mike Pence said that he would ensure  President  Trump heard Poland’s request to “continue and even expand” American troop levels of around 4,500 soldiers.
A major goal at the Warsaw conference was to help Netanyahu raise his concerns over Iran’s expansion into Syria.  Beside Israel itself, it did not appear that the other participating countries in the Warsaw conference could do much about the problem. Israel has been bombing Iranian military installations in Syria.  But it was Russia that helped negotiate an agreement to push back Iranian proxies from the borders between Syria and Israel earlier this year. The US meanwhile is downsizing from 2000 to around 200 soldiers in Syria.
It was not an irony that Putin announced a summit meeting with the leaders of Iran and Turkey in Sochi last Thursday, the main day of the Warsaw conference, setting up a rival event at the same time. Rouhani attended the fourth round of the Sochi Talks on Syria together with his Russian and Turkish counterparts and was seen enjoying a friendly dinner with Putin and Erdogan as well as with Belarus’s President Alexander Lukashenko, a strong Putin ally.
At the Munich Security Conference, Zarif called the Warsaw conference a desperate move by Washington to rally an unwilling world community against Iran, and he condemned the speeches in Munich by  the US Vice President Pence and the US Secretary of State Pompeo, that urged Europe to implement the economic sanctions regime imposed by the Trump administration to isolate Iran.
Iran insists that it is time the US grasped the realities on the ground including  Tehran’s influence across the Middle East. Despite expressing alarm at Iran’s regional behavior, Europe has done next to nothing to discourage  Tehran from such behavior.
The three European parties to the Iran nuclear deal have set up a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) dubbed the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX) to make possible transactions with Iran despite US sanctions. Other countries like Switzerland have set up additional banking channels to Iran to deliver humanitarian goods.
It comes as no surprise, says Iran, that the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the inter-governmental body that monitors global financing  of terrorism, has granted Iran a second extension to fix its internal laws to comply with international agreements to counter-terrorism and transnational crime. Once Iran joins FATF, any outstanding legal hurdles to do business with  Tehran would be removed unless the US sanctions regime prevails in overriding them.
To prevent drastic US action, Russia and China have made their trade with Iran contingent on its ability to conform with international standards for financial transactions. Russia is expecting INSTEX to open up trade with Iran, as are China and Turkey, Iran’s other main trading partners. Russia also says that it would continue to have nuclear cooperation with Iran, regardless of US pressures.
These measures have given Iran reason to believe that it can stall Washington’s efforts to build a strong coalition against it in the aftermath of the Warsaw conference. What is clear is that for now, Washington is also unable to impose its will on other major powers concerning trade and security that remain committed to giving Iran a chance to survive the renewed US-led sanctions regime against it.

Editorial Team