Before the Warsaw Middle East Conference begins

Before the Middle East conference in Warsaw starts there is an array of perspectives on why this event takes place now and why in Warsaw. A variety of actors land in the Polish capital with mixed expectations. Some 60 delegations from across the world come to expect something, but what exactly?

When the news broke about the event it was introduced as anti-Iranian conference. Mike Pompeo is on the Central European tour of capitals ahead of coming to Warsaw. Last year US has withdrawn from the nuclear deal with Iran brokered by the EU diplomats. In January in Cairo Secretary Pompeo called Iran, once again, an enemy.

The Israelis gain new friends

Israel plays the Trump administration well. The US has moved its embassy to Jerusalem. The Warsaw event is presented in Israel as a potential overture for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s and the country’s new, improved relations with certain Arab nations, whose representatives are to attend the meeting.

What is sure ahead of the meeting is that Likud’s Netanyahu will leave Warsaw with a new friend in the world – Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS). As long as Netanyahu and PiS are in power, the Israeli-Polish relations should flourish in the years to come. Unless another crisis erupts, that is, like last year’s fight between Warsaw and Jerusalem over the Polish Holocaust law. Today, the Israeli ambassador in Warsaw Anna Azari says the old conflict is over and a new chapter is to open. Netanyahu is given a rare opportunity to address many Arab representatives. He is expected to deliver a strong message.

The Arabs in retreat

The Arabs are divided. Palestinians are absent and call on others to boycott the event calling it “conspiracy aimed at eliminating the Palestinian cause” (Al-Jazeera). The following countries are expected to send their ministers: Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman, Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain, Morocco and Kuwait, while Egypt and Tunisia are sending their deputy ministers.

The meeting of the unwanted

Iraq, as well as Iran, Turkey and Russia are not attending the meeting. The Iranians are closely monitoring the event. Initially they were outraged with the initiative. The Americans call the event anti-Iranian. The Israelis are triumphant. The Polish MFA send a delegation to Tehran to calm down the Iranian waves: “this is not an anti-Iranian event. This is about the Middle East peace prospects”. Temporarily successful, for now Tehran is watching.

Russia, Turkey and Iran are having their own gathering in Sochi on the same day as the Warsaw event. They are scheduled to discuss the situation in Syria.

The Europeans are unhappy

The EU has been invited, but… There is the ‘but‘ as Poland has not consulted the event with its European partners. In fact, Poland was also surprised when the news about the event first broke by the Americans, when Mike Pompeo announced it and labelled as anti-Iranian. Polish firefighters had to refocus the conference objective, calm down the Iranians and Europeans.

Federica Mogherini was invited and expected, yet she denied. Other obligations keep her in Africa. The EU is in disagreement with the US on the Iran deal, the JCPOA. Trump has withdrawn US from the 2015 agreement single-handedly. The Europeans, Russians and Chinese as well as the Iranians agreed to continue the agreement without Washington. Yet the Americans have introduced sanctions on anyone who would trade with Iran. One counter-move to another, the Europeans responded with a new tool, INSPEX, designed to circumvent the American sanctions (also known as the special purpose vehicle, SPV).

In Warsaw the EU is present. After all, Poland is one of them. Yet the level of trust towards the Polish diplomats is at historical low. Hence the participation level of the EU power houses, France and Germany, has been relatively reduced. Some critics in Iran are still unhappy, according to Al-Jazeera: “Even though some EU countries will send lower-level diplomats, their flag is going to be there. We expect the EU to be criticising US and holding a summit to analyse US foreign policy in the region, rather than participating in a conference geared to attack Iran,” said Foad Izadi, professor of international studies at Tehran University.

The Americans are the driving force

The Warsaw meeting is the US initiative. Minus Trump, the presence of top American politicians includes Mike Pence (vice-president), Mike Pompeo (state secretary) and Jared Kushner (senior advisor to the president and son-in-law of Trump, responsible for the Middle East peace process). The Warsaw event is thought to be a beginning of a new process of a new coalition of pro-American forces in the Middle East.

The trio Pence, Pompeo and Kushner are expected to put on the table the American newest peace offer for the Israelis and Palestinians. It is sad there won’t be any Palestinians to debate the value of the proposal.

Important to listen to will be the Israeli leader speech, since it will be a response to the latest American initiative. At least in Warsaw, however, very few people believe the meeting is about the Israelis and the Palestinians.

If Iran is Israel’s enemy and Saudi Arabia runs a proxy war with Iran in Yemen and other locations in the region, then it is a good moment to join forces and force Iran towards the “negotiation table, this time regarding its regional policy and missile programme”, says Patrycja Sasnal, as quoted in Al-Jazeera interview.

Is it about Iran or the Middle East?

The event is expected to be about the Middle East, even if Iran provides for the specific context. The Palestinians are not present and on the Israeli-Palestinian front little should be expected. The Syrian war seems to be only on the margins of the Warsaw meet, also due to Iraqi and Turkish absence. The war in Yemen, however, is part of the equation that could be addressed in Warsaw… but can you be successful if the Iranians are not around the table?

It is also about the Polish-Israeli relations (improved) and the Israeli-Arab relations (potentially to be improved). It is about the attempt for the Polish government to make international policy, for which it is or is not ready for, depending whom you ask. Most European diplomats agree the event is poorly prepared, yet everybody is going to watch and listen to Pence, Pompeo and Kushner.

The Warsaw event is the Trump’s answer to the Iran’s perceived threat.

The price of hosting

The Tehran initial criticism of Poland was a signal: Poland will pay a price for hosting the American event. Its good and amicable relations with some nations of the region are the price Warsaw is ready to pay.

Warsaw gave a check to Washington. A new contract… for the American company to deliver the HIMARS system to the Polish army. No wonder there is a major domestic opposition to the conference on the Middle East peace talks. Poland’s check also includes demands for increase of the US Army presence on the Polish soil and the US ambassador in Warsaw, Georgette Mosbacher, agrees.

Warsaw University professor Roman Kuźniar accuses the Polish government of being a client of Washington in his op-ed for Rzeczpospolita. He quotes Zbigniew Brzeziński that “an ally is not a satellite state” and says Poland under PiS became a US satellite state. In conversation with this blog Kuźniar adds: “This event is an activity of serving another’s, not your own, interests”. Asked what are the Polish interests in the Middle East Kuźniar says Poland does not have specific interests in the region, except for strong Polish-Israeli history. With other nations the relations “should be neutral” and follow the general European interest of peace in the region.

Most other commentators agree that Poland’s hosting seems misplaced. Poland is no Finland or Singapore, I hear people commenting on the TVN24BiS TV station. Arkadiusz Stempin of the Tischner European University: “Poland has no influence in the Middle East”. Ellie Geranmayeh of ECFR: “Without the EU this summit is unbelievable”.

Yet some add this could be an attempt to send a signal to the world: “we are the actor who tries to square the circle and solve the unsolvable”. This message to the world is double with the message to the local population: “we are important”. At the same time, Michał Baranowski, director of the Warsaw GMF office tells this blog “at the moment there is no sign suggesting solving the Iran problem is possible since the big European powers – France, Germany and Mogherini – are absent”.

Et alors?

Poland plays with fire. It may be successful – surely there are odds of success. Yet they are so slim. What Americans truly want? On a bad day, president Trump alludes that US can withdraw from NATO. On a good day, he moves to other issues. Is Washington pushing for a new war, this time with Iran, or is it just another poker game. Yet when one plays poker domestically according to known rules it is a different game altogether in a place like the Middle East.

Poland’s not winning anything in the Middle East. It buries its own pointless conflict with Israel, which is a good thing. It risks a new diplomatic conflict with Iran.

An interesting twist to the story of the US-led conference in Warsaw is provided by the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC. Mike Pompeo visited other Central European capitals before landing in Warsaw. According to the think tank’s blog “Pompeo’s trip to Central Europe aims to bring NATO allies in from the cold” as the region was left out to the increasing Chinese and Russian influence.

I only wonder if the Americans believe that reducing influence of the Chinese (Huawei) and Russians in Central Europe means also reducing the influence of the EU? After all, the current US administration seems to believe in a zero-sum game.

I want to believe that the Poles will prevent breaking of the European unity on the Iran nuclear agreement. Whatever coalition, or whatever process will come out of the Warsaw gathering, Poland cannot break the European ranks. If they play it smart, the Polish foreign office can achieve something more: an increased trust of the EU diplomats. Will they?

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