This month, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo announced that the United States and Poland would jointly host a summit that will include “an important element of making sure that Iran is not a destabilising influence” in the Middle East. Due to take place in Warsaw on 12-13 Feburary, the conference is viewed as controversial both in European capitals and Tehran. It could signal a gradual unravelling of European unity on Iran policy.
ECFR’s experts consider how the summit is viewed from the perspective of the US, Poland, and Iran, and recommend next steps for other European countries.
The view from Washington
What if they held a conference on Iran’s malign influence in the Middle East and nobody came? Well, in the case of the February summit, we may soon find out. Mike Pompeo announced that Poland would host this event during a January eight-country trip to the Middle East. The United States and Poland intend to invite some 70 countries, though pointedly not Iran itself.
The purpose of the conference is probably to keep US anti-Iranian activity in the news and sustain the narrative that the US and Pompeo are “doing something”.
The foreign ministers of Russia and France, and the European Union high representative, have already said they will not go. The United Kingdom, Germany, and China may well follow suit. It is not clear what a ‘coalition of the willing’ that includes none of the parties to the Iran nuclear deal besides the United States can really hope to accomplish. A joint communiqué describing Iranian malign influence signed by some Sunni Arab states and a bunch of US allies with no connection to the Middle East is unlikely to further isolate Iran.
The moment the idea fell from Pompeo’s lips, speculation ran rampant that the US sought to ‘divide the EU’ over Iran. But as so often in the Trump administration, observers are mistaking the pseudo-random emanations of a confused policy process for some sort of purposeful strategy. Dividing the EU on Iran would not really be that hard, but first the US would have to take the Europeans seriously and design a policy to exploit the seams between the EU countries with influence over Iran, particularly the UK, France, Germany, and Italy. The Trump administration’s blunderbuss approach to Iran policy, by contrast, seems designed to ensure European unity. It is at best indifferent to whether the EU is united or not. Getting Poland, a country with no stake in Iran, to host a conference is quite simply not up to the high standard for dividing the EU set by the Bush administration in the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq war.
More probably, the purpose of the conference is simply to keep US anti-Iranian activity in the news and sustain the narrative that the US and Pompeo are “doing something” about the malign influence of Iran. It is consistent with a US policy towards Iran that to date has been much more focused on inputs than outputs. The US wants to keep up the pressure on Iran, but has never really described how it expects to translate that pressure into better behaviour from Iran. Is the US seeking regime change, the wholesale destruction of the Iranian economy, or perhaps to provoke Iranian escalation as a prelude to war? It is not at all clear, even apparently to the administration itself. It is hard to divide the EU if you cannot explain to its members what precisely they should be divided about. At the moment, the EU is united in its belief that, beyond reflexive hostility, the US has no effective strategy toward Iran. A pointless conference in Poland will not change that.
The view from Tehran
It is no surprise that Warsaw’s decision to partner up with the Trump administration in hosting the summit went down poorly in Tehran. Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif was quick to tweet a reminder of the time when Iran took in over 100,000 Polish refugees, noting “Polish Govt can't wash the shame: while Iran saved Poles in WWII, it now hosts desperate anti-Iran circus.” Other Iranian officials have described the summit as a “game” being played by Iran’s enemies, and warned that Poland’s miscalculation will be met with a “serious and uncompromising response”.
But news of the summit was not a great surprise to Tehran: rumours have circulated for months that the United States planned to hold such a conference. Some speculated that the event is targeted to overshadow the 40th anniversary of the Islamic revolution the same week. Tehran views the summit an another attempt by the US to isolate the country, and divide European countries over their Iran policy. Iran knows that the Trump administration has exerted considerable effort to persuade European capitals into the “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, an outcome Tehran is keen to avoid.
Iran is angered by Poland’s move, which comes against a backdrop of increasing tensions between EU countries and Iran on an array of issues.
There are mixed feelings inside Iran as to whether the US will be successful in its attempt to split EU countries. Regardless of this success, Iran is angered by Poland’s move, which comes against a backdrop of increasing tensions between EU countries and Iran on an array of issues. This has led to a growing sense in Tehran that Europe and the US are teaming up to play ‘good cop-bad cop’ roles aiming to pressure Iran on critical security issues, most notably its missile programme. Indeed there is a widespread sense across political factions inside Iran that Europeans cannot deliver any meaningful economic benefits to Iran on the nuclear deal and will sooner or later be dragged into line with US policy on Iran more generally.
In response to the announced summit, Iran has so far summoned Poland’s top envoy in Tehran and cancelled a Polish film festival due to be held later this month. Some have speculated that Iran may tighten visa requirement for Polish tourists and others have argued that Iran should destroy graves commemorating Polish soldiers and refugees from the second world war. It is unclear, beyond this, how Tehran can or will retaliate to create a cost for those countries attending the conference.
In an attempt to contain the fallout, a Polish delegation led by deputy foreign minister Maciej Lang visited Tehran this week. The diplomatic outreach has eased some tensions with Tehran although the Iranian authorities say they are unconvinced by Poland’s explanations for hosting the event and excluding Iran. Iran is likely to assess its full retaliation based on what actually comes out of the Warsaw summit and, importantly, the level of European representation at the meeting.
Last September, the US administration made a similar attempt to isolate Iran at the United Nations General Assembly by initiating a special Security Council session focused on Iran’s nuclear programme. This backfired: after pressure from European governments (which were keen to avoid a showdown with Washington on the nuclear deal) the US was forced to broaden the agenda to cover wider non-proliferation issues and was faced with firm support by the international community for the nuclear deal.
Indeed, the Trump administration has already backtracked from Pompeo’s original framework for this summit, shifting from an anti-Iran discussion to a broader Middle East security. However, the fact that Iran has been excluded from the meeting, and that the US Iran Action Group is reportedly in charge of coordinating the summit, signals that the agenda will have a heavy Iran focus.
If the summit ultimately fails it may serve Tehran’s interest not to over-react and instead point to this as another failed attempt by Washington to turn the world against Iran.
The view from Poland
Poland is not an obvious choice as the location for the Middle East conference, to say the least. The country’s political and economic stakes in Iran are not high, and its record of engagement in the region is rather moderate. Warsaw is the capital of a central European EU and NATO member state, not a neutral place like Geneva, Helsinki, or Vienna where difficult multilateral negotiations usually take place. The assumption that Poland’s interest in holding the controversial meeting lies primarily in its bid for a special partnership with the US is thus not far-fetched. Polish government representatives have encouraged this reading of the situation by emphasising the symbolic role of the event for Poland’s rising position in the world and strategic cooperation with Washington. In March 2019, US decisions about further enhancement of American military presence in Poland (“Fort Trump”) are expected – a goal which enjoys absolute priority in current Polish security and foreign policy. This is not the right moment to oppose American demands, especially for a government known for its sympathies with Donald Trump and tense relations with EU partners.
But should the conference go beyond these national strategic considerations after all? Warsaw has not given up on its support for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and has thus not broken the European Union’s consensus – that was the message conveyed by Poland’s foreign minister Jacek Czaputowicz at the Foreign Affairs Council last Monday. Poland believes that, while the EU should try to rescue the agreement, doing so at any cost would be counterproductive, for several reasons.
First, risking a major conflict with the US over Iran would be a mistake. This is why plans for a special purpose vehicle to circumvent possible US sanctions are viewed as adding insult to injury. The countries of central and eastern Europe distrust the way the E3 and Federica Mogherini handle the Iran file, believing that they do not take into account the views of all EU member states while acting on EU’s behalf. Second, Poland supports the US view that Iran’s destabilising role in the Middle East needs to be addressed in parallel with the nuclear talks. Some diplomats in Warsaw argue that, rather than kill the JCPOA, the forthcoming conference can, in fact, help it survive. They maintain that it is wrong to dub the event an ‘anti-Iran conference’. The summit is supposed to address a number of regional issues, including terrorism, Yemen, and weapons proliferation. Some progress on these matters could ‘balance’ the JPCOA and make the further observance of the JCPOA a more plausible choice for the US
However, the Polish authorities are instrumental in toning down expectations. Czaputowicz said in a recent interview that he does not expect any formal decisions or declarations from the event, apart from concluding statements by Mike Pompeo and himself as co-hosts of the event. He does not consider criticism of Poland’s decision to be legitimate. At a public event organised by ECFR in Warsaw on 22 January, Poland’s deputy foreign minister, Bartosz Cichocki, said: “[the criticism of Trump] is that he acts unilaterally, not multilaterally. So we host a conference, inviting several dozens of countries to multilaterally discuss one of the most important global problems – peace and stability in the Middle East – but then we hear, ‘No, this conference is not OK’.”
What European countries should do
The Warsaw summit has left many European capitals feeling extremely uncomfortable. The E3 in particular want to avoid a new public showdown with Washington over the nuclear agreement. While they broadly agree that Iranian regional behaviour should change, they disagree with the confrontational US approach, fearing that it will feed further destabilising regional instability. There is also concern that the US is directly seeking to drive a wedge between Europeans on the Iran nuclear issue by holding the summit in Poland and circumventing both the E3 and the European Union, which have been in close contact with the US over the past year on Iran.
Ultimately, the best-case scenario for Europe would be for the US administration to pull the plug on the summit because of low turnout. A number of European ministers have already declined attendance, citing pre-existing commitments. There are also signs that the US sees a need to reconfigure the summit, moving beyond a focus on confronting Iran, to avoid embarrassment by securing broader attendance.
Failing that, European governments should take steps that preserve European unity and avoid undermining Europe’s efforts to preserve the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). While working to address Iran’s regional positioning, they should seek to ensure this does not feed a polarising zero-sum approach. In that light EU countries should:
- Avoid sending ministerial representation to the summit, instead committing lower-level officials. This should involve a coordinated approach to reduce the impact of bilateral US pressure to secure ministerial participation. Europeans can hope that this will lead to the cancellation of the summit, or at least a genuinely broader regional agenda that frames a more constructive conversation. Towards this end, and given that the US administration and Poland insist that the meeting is about the wider issue of regional stability rather than solely Iran, European countries could commit representatives on the Syria, Iraq, and Yemen files.
- In advance of the summit, EU governments should agree on a common position, including language on a more comprehensive Iran policy signed off by foreign ministers at the level of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Across the range of Iran-related issues Europeans should disabuse themselves of the notion that this summit offers a realistic opportunity to forge a more meaningful partnership with the US, including by drawing the administration towards more reasonable positions. The real aim will have to be damage control.
- An agreed common position must therefore firmly underscore Europe’s commitment to the nuclear agreement, including support for the special purpose vehicle (SPV) mechanism that aims to sustain some trade with Iran by working around US sanctions. EU foreign ministers should also agree on language regarding Iran’s regional role and missile programme to ensure that they all read from the same songsheet at Warsaw, one that does not feed unhelpful escalation. This statement should be released in conjunction with the registration of the SPV, which is reportedly imminent, in order to clearly demonstrate to Tehran that Europeans remain committed to the JCPOA despite other differences. As part of this common approach E3 countries should make a particular effort to draw Poland in, looking to pre-emptively dampen prospects of a US-orchestrated rift.
- Before committing to attend the Poland summit, European countries should ensure they have full transparency as to the meeting agenda, and be vigilant to avoid a scenario in which Poland and the US, as co-chairs of the summit, effectively ambush participants by unilaterally releasing a concluding statement from the meeting on behalf of the participants.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.