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.
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.