During his trip to the Middle East the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced an international summit in Warsaw on February 13-14 to “promote freedom, peace and stability in the Middle East.” Such objectives, judging by his own rhetoric, seem to be reduced almost exclusively to confronting Iran’s “malign behavior” in the region.
Those who attend the summit will want the United States to do the heavy lifting on Iran. This, however, is the very opposite of the message Pompeo sent in his Cairo speech: the United States expects allies to do more and will use diplomacy to get “every Iranian boot” out of Syria. However, Pompeo did not outline a strategy to achieve that goal because there is none. Expect more such empty sloganeering in Warsaw.
The real point of the summit is to deliver a slap in the face of Brussels, Berlin, and Paris. The EU—as represented by its foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, United Kingdom, France, and Germany—is committed to saving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the nuclear deal with Iran is known. It opposes the unilateral re-imposition and extra-territorial effects of the American sanctions, and does not share the view that Iran is the only source of trouble in the Middle East.
This puts the EU at odds with the United States, which unreservedly embraces the Israeli-Saudi view of Iran. The Iran deal also flies in the face of a broader repudiation by the Trump administration of the rules-based international order defended by the EU. Thus, undermining the EU would remove an obstacle to a dismantlement of that order.
Poland, under its current nationalist-populist government, is a willing accomplice in implementing such designs. Warsaw clashed with Brussels over its own failure to adhere to the basic rules and values of the Union. And it enthusiastically embraced Trump’s nationalist, anti-immigrant agenda. Poland is positioning itself as a privileged partner for the United States in Europe, at the expense of Germany, which Trump singled out for particular scorn. Antagonizing Brussels on a key foreign policy issue and putting in jeopardy Poland’s own long-standing relations with Iran seem to be an acceptable price to pay.
Then there is the Israeli factor. Israel is irritated by the EU’s support for the Iran deal, refusal to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital, and criticisms of Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian lands. Cultivating relations with the emerging illiberal axis of Hungary, Italy, and Poland is useful for undermining EU unity on these issues. Holding a summit in Warsaw is symbolically designed to deliver a mortal blow to the EU common position on Iran.
The tragedy of the situation, however, is that there might not be much left to undermine. Although the EU pledged strong political support for the JCPOA, it is failing to effectively protect it. Several months after the decision to enact the Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) to facilitate legitimate trade with Iran, this remains merely a project, due to a seeming inability to find a country that would host it. Meanwhile, on January 9 the EU imposed new sanctions on Iran over alleged assassinations plots on European soil. Immediately after, France released a harsh statement demanding that Iran stop its alleged plans to develop nuclear-capable ballistic missiles.
The whole point of the Warsaw summit is not so much to isolate Iran as to humiliate the EU once more.
A new tone of acrimony is creeping into EU-Iran relations. Ali Shamkhani, an influential secretary of the National Security Council, declared that Europe’s opportunity to deliver on its commitments on JCPOA has ended. This does not signal Iran’s imminent withdrawal from the deal. But, as Iran scholar Mohammad Ali Shabani warns, such a shift in the position of a moderate figure like Shamkhani reflects the dwindling political support for the JCPOA in Iran.
This should worry the EU. Missile programs or the activities of the Iranian intelligence services in Europe are certainly among the issues the EU ought to be discussing with Iran. But it can only credibly do so provided it delivers on the JCPOA. There is a considerable contrast between the celerity with which the new sanctions were imposed and the continued stalling of the SPV. If some European officials, particularly those from the UK, France, and Germany, think that toughening up their rhetoric on Iran would gain them more leeway in Washington to squeeze some minor concessions on the JCPOA, they are deluding themselves. No concessions will ever be good enough short of a full submission to the U.S. will.
Ominously, the US National Security Council was just reinforced with Richard Goldberg, an Iran uber-hawk who, while at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), called for sanctions against European actors engaged in legitimate trade with Iran. The real U.S. attitude to the EU was on further display when it downgraded the status of the EU delegation in Washington without even notifying it. The whole point of the Warsaw summit is not so much to isolate Iran as to humiliate the EU once more.
The EU thus faces a stark choice. It can either pull itself together, launch the SPV, and stand by it in the face of likely U.S. sanctions. Or it can fold under American pressure and lose further relevance in Iran. But what is at stake is more than the Iran deal alone. Ultimately, it is about the EU’s ability to be a strategic actor on the world stage and effectively protect the international rules-based order.
Cover photo: Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (U.S. Embassy Poland.