US presents Middle East vision in Warsaw, but no converts

AFP , Tuesday 12 Feb 2019

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a ceremony celebrating the 40th anniversary of Islamic Revolution. (AFP)

The United States is seeking this week in Warsaw to rally the world behind a vision of the Middle East that includes maximum pressure on Iran and strong backing of Israel, but it is winning little fresh support.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last month announced the two-day conference starting Wednesday, saying that foreign ministers from around the world would come to Poland to take up the "destabilising influence" of Iran in the Middle East.

A show of unity would serve as a powerful rejoinder to Iran's clerical regime, which just this week is celebrating 40 years since Islamic zealots toppled the Western-oriented shah.

But with few RSVPs coming, the United States and Poland have toned down the agenda, stating that the conference is not focused on Iran or on building a coalition against it, but rather looking more broadly at the Middle East.

US Vice President Mike Pence will address the conference, whose co-host is Pompeo.

Even though the meeting takes place in the European Union, major European powers are sending low-level representation with the exception of British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who signalled that he primarily wants to address the humanitarian crisis triggered by the Saudi-led offensive in Yemen.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said she had previous commitments and Pompeo instead will have breakfast with her in Brussels on his way home.

Even host Poland -- which is eager for strong relations with the United States in the face of a resurgent Russia -- has stressed that it still joins the European Union in backing a 2015 deal negotiated by former US president Barack Obama to ease sanctions on Iran in return for curbs on its nuclear programme.

President Donald Trump stormed out of the deal last year, calling it "terrible", and has reimposed sweeping US sanctions aimed at strangling Iran's economy and curbing its regional power.


Hints of US Middle East plan

The countries that are sending top officials to Warsaw are pushing for a tough line on Iran including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Arab allies of the United States such as the United Arab Emirates.

Netanyahu said that Iran remained the foremost item on the agenda -- "how to continue preventing it from entrenchment in Syria, how to thwart its aggression in the region and, above all, how to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons."

Yet the United States is also expected in Warsaw to offer hints of its proposals for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Trump's son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, who has been putting final touches on a "deal of the century" for the Middle East, will make a rare speaking appearance on Thursday.

Kushner, whose family is close to Netanyahu, is not expected to unveil the proposal until after the April 9 election in Israel.

The Trump administration faces an uphill climb in selling any deal to the Palestinian Authority, which remains livid over Trump's landmark 2017 decision to recognise Jerusalem -- claimed by both peoples -- as Israel's capital.

The Palestinian government -- which has labelled the Warsaw conference an "American conspiracy" -- has refused talks with the United States until it starts what it calls a more balanced policy.


Iran, Russia counter event

Iran was not invited to Warsaw and summoned the Polish ambassador to protest. But in a show of diplomatic clout, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani will travel during the US-led conference to Russia, which declined to attend in Warsaw.

In the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Rouhani will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Syria, where Trump is pulling out US troops.

Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz said the Warsaw conference should "initiate a process" on finding stability in the Middle East, with a US official saying that countries will hold follow-up meetings.

Ali Vaez, director of the Iran project at the International Crisis Group think tank, said the United States appeared determined to use Warsaw to expand beyond its anti-Iran coalition of Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

"I doubt Washington will succeed in achieving this objective, because while many in Europe share US concerns with regards to Iran's regional activities and ballistic missiles programme, they don't agree with Washington's one-sided and maximalist view that Iran is the source of all evil in the region," he said.

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