In Warsaw, conflicting agendas stand in the way

By Claude Salhani

The 2-day peace and security conference organised by the United States in Warsaw is indicative of the manner the Trump administration conducts business and policies in the Middle East. Uncertainty and wavering marked the event from the start.

It is with the idea of confronting Iran’s hostile policies in the Middle East that Washington organised the gathering, inviting 70 countries. Intended to impress and perhaps somewhat bully Iran, the conference had to be refocused by organisers on wider objectives of “peace and security in the Middle East” to accommodate reluctant participants.

If Washington was gung-ho on slamming Iran, this was far from what its European allies had in mind. The European Union hoped to maintain the 2015 agreement aimed at preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The United States, under President Barack Obama, was a signatory of the accords but Trump pulled the United States out of the deal last May and imposed stringent sanctions on Tehran.

Of the countries directly concerned by the conference’s main focus, Iran was not invited and Russia refused to attend.

One of the main sources of the Middle East’s continued strife, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not a focus of the meeting. It could not compete with the interest in countering Iran.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu used the meeting to push the notion that Israel’s normalisation of relations with Arab countries is possible without addressing the Palestinian issue.

The breakthroughs Israel had hoped to achieve in Warsaw were, despite Netanyahu’s hype, below the country’s expectations. As expressed by Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud before the meeting, solidarity of moderate Arab countries with the Palestinians has not been affected by their will to confront Iran’s designs.

Israel’s short-sighted attitude as well as the Palestinians’ determination not to engage Washington will only delay the needed discussion of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Normalisation between Israel and the Arab world cannot deflect attention from that.

Some Iranian leaders called the Warsaw meeting “a circus,” saying they would not be intimidated by American “imperialist designs” and that Iran would continue to develop a strong military to promote its interests. Iran buttressed its stance with threats to burn Israeli cities.

Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, when Iranian students, acting with the blessing of the imams, stormed the US Embassy, took 52 American diplomats hostage and held them for 444 days, relations between Iran and the United States have fluctuated between confrontational and polar cold.

The mullahs have systematically accused Washington of harbouring “hegemonic” designs on the region.

One could say the same about Iran’s aggressive policies in the Middle East where Tehran has been encroaching politically, militarily and socially.

Iran has, since the revolution 40 years ago, adopted a neo-colonialist attitude in projecting its vision of Shia-influenced radical Islam on the region. Its intent has been to force its sectarian and militant vision of Islam on the people of the region. To those ends, Iran has not shied away from using terrorism.

When they overthrew the 2,500-year-old monarchy in Iran, the mullahs promised the Iranian people a better, brighter tomorrow. The Iranians will have to wait. Iran finds itself somewhat of an international pariah, shunned by many nations for its acceptance of terrorism as a political tool. Perhaps of far greater concern to the individual Iranian is the shape of the country’s economy.

Granted, many of Iran’s economic problems stem from US-imposed sanctions applied by the Trump administration, which accuses Tehran of pursuing its ambition to obtain nuclear weapons.

Russia, which holds a major piece of the Middle East puzzle as a result of President Vladimir Putin’s interventionist policy and US President Donald Trump’s disengagement from the region, said it would not attend the conference. Russia has its own game, with its own rules and aligned players.

The United States was represented by Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, both relative novices in international affairs with no experience in the field outside of work as members of Congress.

Syria is again found holding that all-important key to regional peace or war. As a result of Syria’s civil war, both Russia and Iran find themselves playing central roles in Syria.

The Warsaw conference seems confusing, starting with its very pompous title: “Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East.”

The Trump administration wanted to form a US-aligned coalition to confront Iran’s aggressive policies in the region but, by delegating the summit to his vice-president, Trump involuntarily signalled his lack of interest in the event and, in so doing, sealed its fate.

Any action against Iran will depend less on grandiloquent conferences than on the ability of the United States to garner the support of willing allies and partners around a clear vision of its objectives towards Tehran and the Middle East.

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