Warsaw and the Limits of the Anti-Iran Alliance

Mike Pomeo meets Federica Mogherini in Brussels (State Department via Flickr)Mike Pomeo meets Federica Mogherini in Brussels (State Department via Flickr)

by Eldar Mamedov

One of the key goals that the Trump administration pursued by organizing the Warsaw conference on the Middle East was to undermine the European Union (EU) as one of the remaining defenders of a multilateral, rules-based international order. The Vice President Mike Pence, by demanding that Europeans abandon the UN Security Council-endorsed nuclear agreement with Iran, was in fact dictating them to violate that order. He offered nothing in exchange, except an unconditional submission to “American leadership.”

Warsaw was chosen as a platform for voicing such demands because top officials in Washington, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, seem to see central and eastern European countries as a weak link within the EU, potentially open to siding with the United States over their European partners on Iran and other transatlantic disputes.

Some of these nations, like Poland and Hungary, are ruled by leaders whose worldview is very close to that of the Trump administration, including the exaltation of sovereignty, the defense of “strong borders,” social conservatism, the rejection of immigrants (specifically of Muslim backgrounds), and other alt-right themes. These ideas, particularly rejection of immigration, enjoy strong support throughout the region. Trump administration and the rulers of Poland and Hungary share a dislike of leaders like Germany’s centrist chancellor, Angela Merkel, and supranational bodies like the European Commission.

These countries—including the largest of them, Poland—also depend heavily on U.S. protection against what they see as a threat of a resurgent Russia. Consequently, they are very skeptical of the concept of Europe’s strategic autonomy, enshrined in the 2016 EU Global Strategy. They see the strategy of greater European self-reliance in matters of defense and security as dangerously naïve and weakening NATO.

The circle of potential European allies for Trump, however, is not limited to the eastern part of the continent. Although much of the analysis of the Warsaw conference has focused on the absence of the French and German foreign ministers, as well as the EU High Representative for Foreign Policy Federica Mogherini, less noticed was the presence of  Enzo Moavero, the foreign minister of the major Western European country of Italy. Unlike his British counterpart, Jeremy Hunt, who left Warsaw after a panel on Yemen, Moavero stayed for the full conference. His attendance reportedly was not discussed with the diplomats in the Italian foreign ministry.

Under the previous centrist government, Italy was one of the EU countries that most favored the idea of engagement with Iran. The current populist administration has so far been too busy with its domestic agenda to wreak significant havoc on Italy’s foreign policy. Yet, the affinity of Matteo Salvini, Italy’s de-facto premier and the leader of the far-right Lega party, for Trump was never a secret. That ideological closeness explains why Italy, unlike Socialist-ruled Spain, secured U.S. waivers to continue purchasing Iranian oil after stringent new anti-Iranian sanctions were imposed in November last year. Shortly before the Warsaw meeting, however, Italy stopped buying Iranian oil. Moavero’s presence in Warsaw may have been another step in getting closer to Washington’s line.

Yet the meeting in Warsaw exposed the limits of this transatlantic alt-right realignment. Even as the United States, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and assorted Arab regimes were desperate to make the conference almost exclusively about Iran, the Polish hosts and other European participants had different priorities in mind. For them it was not about Iran, but about securing their own national interests. Poland, for example, has long sought to get the United States to establish a military base on its territory. Small Baltic nations seek extra reassurance against Russia. Iran was not even mentioned in the final co-chairs statement. Considering that this supposedly was a meeting of closely aligned nations, the lack of consensus only highlighted the magnitude of the U.S. failure.

Moreover, just a week before the Warsaw meeting, the Council of the EU adopted its conclusions on Iran, setting the bloc’s common policy on the country. That statement reiterated full support for the Iran nuclear deal, welcomed Iran’s full compliance with the pact, and endorsed the creation by the EU trio of France, Germany, and United Kingdom of INSTEX, a special mechanism to help EU-Iran trade bypass U.S. sanctions. Although the document listed a number of concerns that the EU shared with the United States, its tone and content could not diverge further from the obsessive demonization of Iran that Pence and Pompeo sought to promote in Warsaw. Poland, Hungary, and Italy also endorsed that common EU position, even though, because of the unanimity rule, any one of them could have blocked it. Poland even dispatched its deputy foreign minister to Tehran to limit potential damage to bilateral relations. This is a clear message to Washington that, even if Warsaw and Budapest are willing to challenge Brussels on a number of issues, Iran, for now, is not one of them.

There are more risks for the European alt-right in toeing the Trump line. There is an obvious contradiction between defending national “sovereignty” and unconditionally following the United States, even more so given that anti-Iranian policies are perceived to be a result of pressure also from Israel and the deeply unpopular Saudi regime of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

Finally, any alliance with the alt-right is inherently unstable, as nationalists tend to see international relations as a zero-sum game. By the end of the Warsaw meeting, Poland and Israel, the two supposed pillars of the anti-Iran alliance, engaged in a public brawl after Netanyahu accused Poles of collaborating with the Nazis in committing the Holocaust. In 2018, Poland adopted a law criminalizing any suggestions of Polish complicity in the Holocaust. No surprise, then, that the Polish prime minister cancelled his planned visit to Israel. More than a capable, cohesive anti-Iranian coalition, the United States has so far managed to bring together a motley crew of disparate elements seeking their own advantage, even at the expense of their supposed partners.

As if to underscore that point, Pompeo did go to Brussels after Warsaw to meet with Mogherini, only to be told, once again, that the EU is determined to save the Iran nuclear deal.

So, the Warsaw meeting was a fiasco for Washington. That, however, does not mean that the Trump administration and its allies won’t make further attempts to undermine European unity on Iran.

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.

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Eldar Mamedov

Eldar Mamedov has degrees from the University of Latvia and the Diplomatic School in Madrid, Spain. He has worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia and as a diplomat in Latvian embassies in Washington D.C. and Madrid. Since 2007, Mamedov has served as a political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament (EP) and is in charge of the EP delegations for inter-parliamentary relations with Iran, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, and Mashreq.

SHOW 4 COMMENTS

4 Comments

  1. One has to wonder what all the enmity toward Iran is for? Ms. Hunter in an article earlier that the crime does not fit the punishment. The real topic of this conference was that Israel and Saudi Arabia can do as they wish and if anyone gets in there way they will be crushed and subjugated to enormous pain. The pain on Iran has to be so high that no one would ever dare do what they are doing. Either they will get a civil war, Syria and Yemen, social unrest and hyper inflation, Venezuela, embargoed to the stone ages, Cuba, made a terrorist, Hezbollah, cut off from mainland, Qatar, or called in asked to resign, Lebanon.
    Why the Saudi’s would pick a fight with Iran to push the Sunni agenda and become their leader rather than confront Turkey who is now jockeying for the Sunni leadership is perplexing. It now cost SA $20B to get any respect as the case with Pakistan.

  2. Any deal with the treacherous Ayatollahs is null and void because they are criminals. If the Europeans cannot understand this, then they condone the Ayatollahs’ human rights record. It is as simple as that. Now just because some people are anti-US out of principal, they will support the Ayatollahs. It is a no brainer. Criticism of US or any anti-Ayatollah policy is just wrong. People are dying by the dozen every day in Iran. Nothing else matters more than for the world to stop that. Cutting deals with these murderers is just wrong.

  3. Mohammed-Butcher of-Saudi (MbS) trip to Pakistan is one of the agenda items formulated in Warsaw named “ME Peace Convention, haha”. MbS’s mission of traveling to Pakistan with his pockets full of $$cash is to pour money into the Pakistan Salafis for creating a new terrorist group in order to increase the pressure on Iran and also to carry out more terrorist incidents in SE of Iran just like the one which it was carried out last and killed 41 border guards. Just mark my words!

  4. Mr Mostofi who comments for a FEE, your comments are becoming increasingly comical and desperate! So you(or your employers)thinks any deal with Iran is “null”? really?are you a signatory of that deal? as we all know the rest of the world whom actually signed that deal thinking otherwise and are pretty determined to stick to that deal no matter how much it’d be against prospect of your future employment with the regime changers gang. So you think criticizing US on this is wrong because as the world knows well now, US has a great track record on promoting the human rights??? You argument is more clownish than you might have imagined! how moronic indeed to think that the SA along with Israel have impeccable human rights records and that’s why US has them as their number one allies! You crying wolf here on human rights is a real joke and makes you a better fit for working as a stand up political comedian! stop embarrassing
    yourself any farther, We all know who you work for.

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