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Feb 18, 2019 | 11:00 GMT

11 mins read

Warsaw Conference Highlighted the Challenges Facing Anti-Iran Coalition

Participants arrive for the opening session of a Middle East security conference held in Warsaw, Poland, on Feb. 14, 2019.
(SEAN GALLUP/Getty Images)
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By Hussein Ibish for the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington

On February 13 and 14, officials from over 60 governments gathered in Warsaw, Poland, for a U.S.-organized "Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East." From the start, it was obvious that Washington and many of its allies conceptualized the event as primarily designed to strengthen the international coalition to confront Iran on issues — notably missile development and destabilizing regional policies — not dealt with in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal, which Washington withdrew from in 2018. A strong subtext, too, was efforts to lay the diplomatic groundwork for a new Israeli-Palestinian peace plan being drafted by President Donald J. Trump's key adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, and to try to bring Israel and Gulf Arab countries closer together. At the request of the United States' European allies, such as Britain, issues involving the wars in Syria and Yemen were eventually added to the agenda. But, as the conference wound down, it was highly questionable whether any of its ambitious goals had been achieved, and, indeed, it seems possible that in some ways the event demonstrated more weakness and division than strength and solidarity.

Wooing European Countries

Ever since Trump withdrew the United States from the JCPOA, Washington has been trying to develop a broad international coalition to pressure Iran to come back to the negotiating table and eventually agree to much tougher restrictions on its nuclear activities, missile program, and regional policies. The Trump administration has been strongly encouraged in these efforts by Israel and several Gulf Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain. Those governments participated enthusiastically, with Israel even dispatching its head of government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But the real target for that part of the agenda was the European countries that are continuing to try to ensure that the JCPOA can survive and continue to function despite U.S. opposition. Their determination was recently demonstrated by the creation of the Instrument for Supporting Trade Exchanges, a "special purpose vehicle" to facilitate payments from Iran to European companies and other multinationals in currencies other than the U.S. dollar, bypassing the U.S. banking system and avoiding U.S. sanctions.

But these European countries — particularly Britain, France, and Germany — as well as the European Union's administration were distinctly cool to the Warsaw agenda. Only Britain dispatched its foreign minister, Jeremy Hunt, to the conference, and he made it clear that he was primarily attending to participate in the meeting of the "Yemen Quad" — the United States, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE — to discuss the conflict in Yemen. With Russia and Turkey also declining to attend the conference and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad pointedly excluded, any consultations on Syrian affairs were effectively pro forma and inconsequential. There is no evidence that the United States, Israel, or Gulf Arab countries made any progress in wooing important European states away from their efforts to salvage the JCPOA or adopt a more confrontational attitude toward Iran.

To the contrary, the strong divisions within the Western alliance on how to deal with Iran were on full display, especially given the relatively low level of most of the European delegations. The Europeans, including Britain, were sending a polite but pointed message that they still do not agree with the "maximum pressure" campaign of sanctions and other leverage over Tehran and will be trying to continue to work with Iran to preserve the nuclear deal. Moreover, the absence of Russia and China was a reminder that Tehran has significant global support as well. Meanwhile, Russia, Turkey, and Iran underscored their disdain for the Warsaw effort by holding a rival summit of their own in Sochi, Russia, ostensibly about Syria (where all three countries have a large military presence). The summit was attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Therefore, the global and regional fissures regarding Iran were on full display in Warsaw, and Tehran has likely concluded that the coalition against Iran is in serious disarray, and that opportunities exist to work with many of the countries assembled in Warsaw, as well as those that declined to participate or were excluded.

Shared Anxieties, Deep Divisions

Anxieties over Iran's Middle Eastern activities and ambitions are largely shared by Israel and Gulf Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain. And, since the fall of Aleppo in early 2016 to pro-regime forces in Syria, Israel's perspective has shifted from a focus on Iran's nuclear program to pressing concerns about the on-the-ground activities of Iran and its various nonstate militia proxies, including Hezbollah. In short, Israel and several Gulf Arab countries not only see Iran as the primary menace, they also now share a mutual definition of what, precisely, constitutes the proximate Iranian threat. On both general and specific terms, there is now very little daylight between these powers regarding the nature and degree of the challenge posed by Tehran. But despite almost complete agreement on Iran as the paramount regional menace, Israel and these Arab countries remain deeply divided over the ongoing occupation of Palestinian lands that began in 1967.

From its earliest days, the Trump administration has hoped that this shared view could form the basis of a new strategic relationship between Israel and Gulf Arab countries, along with Arab states with existing cooperation with Israel such as Egypt and Jordan. Yet, because of the lack of diplomatic relations between these countries and the ongoing categorical Arab objections to Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands that began in 1967, any collaboration between Israel and Gulf Arab countries has been limited, tactical, and largely behind-the-scenes. Both sides agree that a stronger and more open relationship is theoretically desirable. But the extent of disagreement regarding the terms on which this can be developed became increasingly obvious in 2018 and, again, was on full display in Warsaw.

The Israeli perspective, essentially, is that there should be no real obstacle based on the ongoing occupation. Indeed, for years Israeli officials have spoken in terms of "our Sunni Arab allies" and similar hyperbole. However, while there is obvious interest in many Gulf Arab countries in pursuing a deeper partnership with Israel in confronting Iran, as well as economic development and other concerns, progress on the Palestinian front is essential for any major step forward. While there has been some quiet and unofficial progress, Saudi officials, beginning with King Salman bin Abdulaziz, have been very clear, particularly at the last Arab League meeting, that the Saudi and Arab position is still essentially based on the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002. It's clear there is a new potential for reciprocal trust-building gestures between the parties, but they have to involve progress on the Palestinian issue.

While there is obvious interest in many Gulf Arab countries in pursuing a deeper partnership with Israel in confronting Iran, as well as economic development and other concerns, progress on the Palestinian front is essential for any major step forward.

But the Israeli government does not appear to be capable of or interested in any significant concessions to the Palestinians. For their part, Palestinians have been utterly alienated by a political, diplomatic and economic war against them by the Trump administration, which developed since they strenuously objected to the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the "capital of Israel." Given these realities, U.S. ambition to use the Warsaw ministerial meeting to nudge Israel and Gulf Arab countries together and lay the groundwork for the rollout of the Trump-Kushner peace plan after the Israeli elections scheduled for April appears to have fallen flat. Hopes for enticing pictures of Netanyahu meeting with Arab leaders were not realized, except with the foreign minister of Oman (a country he recently visited). Netanyahu was not standing nearby any key Arab leaders in the group photos, and no progress appears to have been made on either securing Arab buy-in for the potential peace plan or developing another way of promoting and publicizing Israeli-Gulf Arab dialogue.

To the contrary, while the foreign minister of Bahrain reiterated that he expects his country and others to develop full relations with Israel "eventually," a much more cautious note was struck in an interview with Israeli journalist Barak Ravid by the Saudi former intelligence chief and, effectively, unofficial spokesperson Prince Turki al-Faisal. He warned Israelis that Netanyahu is "deceiving them" by suggesting that Saudi Arabia is ready to forge stronger ties with Israel without significant movement toward a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Prince Turki insisted that there is no daylight between King Salman's stance on this issue and that of his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Prince Turki emphasized that he was in close contact with the government on these issues and implied he had a green light to make these statements. He accurately summed up the diplomatic and political equation by noting: "From the Israeli point of view, Mr. Netanyahu would like us to have a relationship, and then we can fix the Palestinian issue. From the Saudi point of view, it's the other way around."

There is, of course, a middle ground between the two, which would involve reciprocal small steps forward with both full peace and full recognition secured at the end of the process. But there is no sign of any such virtuous cycle between Israel and the Palestinians at this stage. To the contrary, the Palestine Liberation Organization also boycotted the Warsaw conference in order to express its profound opposition to U.S. policies. So there is no indication that the Warsaw ministerial in any meaningful sense helped to set the stage for a successful rollout of a new U.S. peace proposal or was the venue for either private or public progress between Israel and Gulf Arab countries. If anything, it emphasized the profound remaining difficulties facing any such efforts.

Increasing Headaches for Iran

Finally, not everyone in Warsaw was on the same page rhetorically. Netanyahu, in particular, roiled international public opinion by appearing to call for a "war" with Iran, a phrase the Israelis quickly corrected, apparently at U.S. insistence, recasting it as "combating" Iran. This may have been a translation or transcription blunder, as Israel insists. Or it may have been primarily for Israeli domestic political consumption, as Netanyahu is running for re-election as a nationalist hard-liner who is advancing Israel's campaign against Iran in coordination with both Washington and Arab countries. Indeed, the whole conference seems to have served, in part, as a way for the Trump administration and its allies to aid Netanyahu, who is facing serious legal and political challenges, in his re-election bid. Whatever its purpose, such rhetoric, coupled with the conference itself, would appear to be fueling a more paranoid and belligerent attitude in Tehran.

A major suicide bomb attack on February 13 that killed at least 27 elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps forces in southeast Iran, near the Pakistan border, will also certainly raise regional tensions. That the second such attack in recent weeks coincided with the Warsaw ministerial, and occurred shortly before Mohammed bin Salman is due to visit Pakistan (the base of the Baluchi group that claimed responsibility) prompted Iranian officials and media to portray the attack as an effort by the United States and Israel to turn Iran's Baluchis into violent separatists. Whatever the cause of the attack, Iran is contending with efforts, however thus far unsuccessful, to consolidate the global and regional coalition against it, even as it is also confronting domestic, violent nonstate militias of its own, precisely the kinds of groups Iran stands accused of subsidizing, training, and arming in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and many other Arab countries. Calls by Trump's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, for "regime change" in Tehran, only serve to heighten temperatures.

Nothing was resolved in Warsaw, and not much progress appears to have been made on any front, particularly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But Iran's economic, political, and even strategic situation continues to deteriorate and the headaches are only mounting for Tehran. At least in the short run, the stage seems set for a long and bitter series of cold and proxy wars rather than the "future of peace and security in the Middle East" to which the Warsaw conference aspired.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

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