Can US Woo Europe Back to Anti-Iran Camp?

In May last year, US President Donald Trump spurned his European allies by scrapping a nuclear deal with Iran that they had spent years negotiating. In Poland this week, Washington will try to get them back on board its anti-Tehran bus.

The US is co-hosting talks on turbulence in the Middle East in the Polish capital, Warsaw, on February 13-14 that are aimed chiefly at Iran’s “malign activities”, from testing ballistic missiles to arming Hezbollah and other proxy forces.

The location is important. Poland is part of the European Union (EU), and while it supports the bloc’s goal of maintaining the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran, it is friendlier ground to the Trump administration than Paris or Berlin.

Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, has populist and nationalist leanings akin to those found in Washington and he is so keen to host a new American military base to ward off Russia that he has suggested calling it “Fort Trump”.

According to Behnam Ben Taleblu, an expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a hawkish think tank, the meeting is a much-needed chance for Europe and the US to get back on the same page over Iran.

“A public airing of grievances and a marriage of strategy and capabilities towards dealing with the Iran threat from the US and Europe is desperately needed,” Taleblu told Il Giornale.

While the US says the Warsaw confab is designed to tackle instability in the Middle East, the conference agenda reads more like US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s go-to bullet point list of Iranian misdeeds.

It covers the development and proliferation of missiles, threats to the energy sector, maritime dangers, cyber security and the militia groups in Lebanon, Yemen, and Syria that Washington blames on Iran.

The US says that the “maximum pressure” sanctions it reimposed on Tehran last year would starve Iranian hardliners of cash for such “malign activities”, even if the mullahs had not breached the 2015 deal by spinning more uranium centrifuges.

The danger does not stay in the Middle East, US officials say. France, Denmark and the Netherlands have all accused Iranian spies of plotting or carrying out assassination strikes on their territories since the nuclear pact was signed.

The EU answered those incidents by slapping new sanctions on Tehran last month, but Europeans have also extended an olive branch to Iran by creating a special purpose vehicle (SPV), as it is known, to allow EU-Iran trade despite US sanctions.

The brainchild mechanism of Berlin, Paris and London aims to keep the beleaguered nuclear deal alive by enabling Tehran to trade hydrocarbons for EU goods in barter-like exchanges that Washington cannot prohibit.

It is not yet clear whether Washington can talk the Europeans around in Warsaw, but a good turnout in Poland of some 40 delegations, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Arab leaders, would go some way towards coalition-building.

So far, the Europeans have cold shouldered the US co-hosts, who will be fronted by Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence in Warsaw. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini is skipping the event. Russia will not attend and some Europeans will send low-ranked envoys.

Iranians have blasted the meet, which comes as they mark the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution, which presaged 40 years of enmity with the US. Foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called it a “desperate anti-Iran circus” that underscored Washington’s isolation.

For Jonathan Cristol, a scholar at Adelphi University, US policy on Iran has backfired by creating another reason for global non-dollar money transactions that are the “beginning of the end of the dollar as the major world reserve currency”.

“Europe has a major incentive to create the SPV not only to maintain the Iran deal but also to begin to hedge against an unreliable American partner that seems to have little regard for European interests,” Cristol told Il Giornale.

There are even pressures among the invitees that already agree on countering Iran’s threats. Netanyahu will show up in Warsaw, as statesmanlike appearances may boost his ratings ahead of a tight general election on April 9.

But Gulf Arab leaders, who are understood to have boosted cooperation with Israel over Iran despite long-standing grievances over the Palestinians, are cautious about sharing a stage with such a divisive figure in the Arab world as Netanyahu.

So, if Warsaw is a test of whether the Trump administration can line up allies behind a tough Iran policy, tightening its web of sanctions and threatening military reprisals, then one big question remains: who will show up for this photo-opportunity?