The United States’ and Poland’s co-hosted conference in Europe is a controversial event. It has united some American allies around President Donald Trump’s aggressive anti-Iran posturing while alienating some others.
The Summit demonstrated divisions amongst European Union member states on the current American administration’s foreign and security policies. It also exhibited new budding relations between various states in the region. Furthermore, it showed the growing polarity between America and the EU on issues concerning the Middle East, especially the Iran nuclear deal.
Iran: Consensus achieved? Or division on display?
The Trump Administration’s publicised Warsaw Middle East Summit intended to unify American allies in pursuit of Middle Eastern peace and security. The two-day eventbrought together representatives from 60 countries where they publicly discussed geopolitical issues facing the region. This included promoting America’s current policy toward Iran. Nonetheless, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has denied claims that the conference was singularly aimed at Tehran despite the antagonistic rhetoric employed during the event.
Speeches by the US and high-level allied officials showed a united front through anti-Iran posturing. Both Secretary Pompeo and Vice President Pence railed against the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). They demanded Europe support the US and withdraw from negotiations. The landmark Obama era agreement placed limits on Iran’s nuclear program while guaranteeing relief from American, European, and UN sanctions. However, not all traditional US allies have supported President Trump’s actions of withdrawal and the subsequent return of sanctions. The makeup of states present at the Summit highlighted these differences. Other than the UK, no other major European ally sent high-level representation. Turkey, a major NATO member and regional force also chose not to attend.
The lack of support for the US’ Iran policy is emphasised as Russia and China, parties to the JCPOA did not engage with the conference agenda. This is a break from the Obama era trend, where they largely endorsed American intentions towards Iran. The unpopularity of President Trump’s policy can further be witnessed by the refusal of the EU delegate to join the summit. The underlying divisions of various states on whether to support or oppose the JCPOA as well as disagreement on how best to engage with the Islamic Republic seem to have led to a lack of tangible results at the end of the meetings.
Europe maintains unity – for now
The Trump Administration’s reinstituted extraterritorial sanctions against Iran have led to uncertainty for many European countries. These states have attempted to remain allied with the US and follow its Middle East policy while also supporting the EU’s united front on the JCPOA. Germany, France, the UK, amongst several others, withstood mounting pressure by the Americans to scrap the deal. Contrary to US’ expectations, the EU has rolled out INSTEX in an attempt to circumvent American sanctions and extend normalcy in relations with Tehran.
It is important to note that Eastern European states continue to diverge from the EU on several critical fronts. These states are increasingly finding affinity with the US in light of security issues vis-à-vis Russia. Poland is a strong example of a state that is trying to encourage an increased domestic presence of American troops while still supporting the EU’s stance on the JCPOA. Policy issues, including the erosion of democratic institutions, and differences on migration policy may create disunity within the EU. Member states may look increasingly to partisan interests over time.
Several factors may upend the status quo. This would allow for the Trump Administration to make some progress on its aggressive anti-Iran policies.
The United Kingdom: There is a possibility that Brexit may result in the UK leaving EU without a deal. In light of this, the UK is attempting to shore up its relationships with non-EU states, especially the US and Israel. If Brexit results in a no deal, the UK could seek to leverage withdrawing from the JCPOA to gain favour with the US. Though this outcome is unlikely as Brexit may be delayed, such a development could upend the current state of affairs.
Turkey-Iran- Russia: During the summit, Turkey, Iran and Russia held trilateral talks on developments in Syria. The three states are united on their opposition to US troops in Syria-albeit for different motivations. Turkey, a NATO member, is increasingly aligned with Russia and Iran on geopolitical issues, placing it at odds with the US, the Gulf States, and Israel. The US withdrawal from Syria is imminent and this will lead to an increased role for Turkey on the ground. Such a development could lead to direct clashes between Turkish and Syrian regime forces. If this were to happen, the current alignment of states risks facing changes. If Iran and Russia violently support of Assad could place Turkey squarely in support of the US anti-Iran policy in the region. However, the likelihood of this is negligible.
The Islamic Republic is currently staying in the JCPOA. Tehran has weighed the stakes and believes it has much to gain under current conditions. The cost-benefit analysis shows that Iran’s ballistic missile program and regional activities are benefiting from the current disagreements between the world powers on the JCPOA. The European states, Russia and China’s continued support for the deal in opposition to the US and the return of sanctions will allow this situation to continue. This has furthered Iran’s standing within the international community. However, Iran is going through an intense economic crisis which is only intensifying with the return of US sanctions. If conditions continue to worsen, Tehran may have to reconsider its position on remaining in the agreement.
Winners and losers
The biggest winner is Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu. It is election season in Israel and Bibi is currently under an immense amount of pressure. Netanyahu has long touted warming ties with Arab Sunni states, especially in the Gulf. Clear agreement on policy issues, specifically on Iran’s role in the region, will likely win him much needed support within the Israeli public as he further brandishes the image of ‘Mr. Security’.
Another major winner is the EU which demonstrated yet again its resilience under American pressure. Under the leadership of Federica Mogherini, the EU continues to maintain its position on the agreement. This is while it continues to keep its member states in line with the official position on the nuclear deal process. This is no small feat given the diplomatic blitz of the Trump Administration. The JCPOA is also a winner when reflecting on these developments. An American withdrawal from the deal in May last year had significantly raised the risks of the agreement collapsing. However, its continued survival places it in the winner’s category. The JCPOA survival continues to provide some measurement of hope that military conflict over Iran’s nuclear program is not imminent.
Two major losers are evident. Firstly, the Trump Administration’s Iran policy continues to remain largely unsupported by crucial players needed for its success. Following Warsaw, it is unlikely this is going to change in the short term. Secondly, Arab states who attended may suffer from a public relations crisis at being seen so friendly in public with Israel.
Predictions for the future
In the short to medium term, Iran will likely continue to adhere to the JCPOA. Its continued compliance has allowed Tehran to intensify its powerful ballistic missile program, support proxies and project its influence across the region. This includes the deployment of troops and economic projects. President Trump’s continued insistence on global compliance to US extraterritorial sanctions is causing serious friction between the US and countries around the world; thereby lending the regime in Tehran the legitimacy it covets.
A serious change likely in the status quo would be if the economic crisis in Iran worsens. Such a development would change the calculations of the Iranian government. It can lend domestic hardliners the upper hand in their argument for withdrawal from the agreement. Given the rampant corruption and stagnation in the Iranian economy, it is not an impossibility. When coupled with a severe water crisis and the return of US sanctions, such an outcome is plausible. Nonetheless, the government in Tehran may attempt to continue under current circumstances in an attempt to outlast President Trump who faces reelection in 2020.
Cover: Top US leaders and other global officials at the Warsaw summit on Middle East security — which was mainly about thwarting Iran — on February 13, 2019. Sean Gallup/Getty Images