Recent days have been witness to two important events: the Middle East Conference in Warsaw (co-hosted by Poland and the US State Department from February 13-14, 2019) and the Munich Conference. Differences between the EU and US over dealing with challenges in the Middle East, especially concerning Iran, were primary during both events.
The Middle East Conference in Warsaw somewhat lacked legitimacy as a number of important individuals were not present. Some of the notable absentees were the EU Foreign Policy Chief, Federica Mogherini, and the Foreign Ministers of Germany, France, and Italy. Significantly, on February 14, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met in Sochi, Russia to discuss the latest developments in Syria and how the three countries could work together.
The personalized aspect of Trump’s diplomacy
In addition to the dissonance between the EU and US over handling Iran, the dependence of Trump upon his coterie, as well as his overly-personalized diplomacy, was clearly evident. Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner, spoke about the Middle East peace plan at the Warsaw Conference, which Trump will make public, after elections are held in Israel in April 2019. The fact that Netanyahu may form a coalition with religious right-wingers could of course be a major challenge to Trump’s peace plan. But given his style of functioning and excessive dependence upon a few exclusive members within his team who lack diplomatic and political experience, this was somewhat expected.
EU and US differences over Iran
While Israel, the US, and Arabs seem to have identified Iran as the main regional threat, the European Union, while acknowledging the threat emanating from Iran, made it amply clear that it disagreed with the US method for dealing with Iran unilaterally and was against any sort of additional sanctions. US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, even went so far as to state that the goal of stability in the Middle East could only be attained if Iran was ‘confronted’. The EU, unlike the US, is opposed to the US decision to get out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
At the Warsaw Conference, Vice President Mike Pence criticized European Union member countries for trying to circumvent sanctions which were imposed by the US. Pence was referring to the SPV (Special Purpose Vehicle) launched by Germany, France, and Britain which de facto undermine US sanctions against Iran. The US Vice President stated that the SPV would not just embolden Iran but could also have a detrimental impact on US-EU relations.
Differences at Munich Conference
The differences between the US and EU over Iran were also visible at the Munich Conference. While Angela Merkel disagreed with Washington’s approach to the Nuclear Deal, she agreed on the threat emanating from Iran, but was unequivocal about her commitment to the JCPOA. While commenting on the importance of the Nuclear Agreement, the German Chancellor said:
“Do we help our common cause…of containing the damaging or difficult development of Iran, by withdrawing from the one remaining agreement? Or do we help it more by keeping the small anchor we have in order maybe to exert pressure in other areas?”
But it was at the Munich Conference that the US Vice President clearly flagged Iran as the biggest security threat to the Middle East. Pence accused Iran of ‘fueling conflict’ in Syria and Yemen, and of continuously backing Hezbollah and Hamas.
GCC Countries at the Warsaw Conference
It is not just the US and Israel, but even representatives of GCC Countries took a firm stand against Iran. A video leaked by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revealed this.
Bahraini Foreign Minister Khaled bin Ahmed Khalifa stated that it was not the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict but the threat from Iran which posed the gravest threat in the Middle East. Like some of the other delegates present at the Warsaw Conference, the Bahraini Foreign Minister accused Iran of providing logistical and financial support to militant groups in the region. Similarly, another clip showed the Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Adel Al Jubeir, saying that Iran was assisting and abetting terrorist organisations by providing them with ballistic missiles.
Iran was quick to dismiss the Middle East Conference in Warsaw and questioned not just its legitimacy but also the desired outcome. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani stated that the conference produced an ‘empty result’.
US allies and their close ties with Iran
First, the US cannot overlook the business interests of its partners not just in Europe, but also in Asia, such as Japan, Korea, and India. India is not just dependent upon Iran for oil, but has significantly invested in development of the Chabahar Port. This will be its new modern gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia. New Delhi in fact took over operations of the Chabahar Port in December 2018. On December 24, 2018 a meeting – the Chabahar Trilateral Agreement — was held and representatives from Afghanistan, Iran, and India jointly inaugurated the office of the India Ports Global Chabahar Free Zone (IPGCFZ).
The recent terror attacks in Iran as well as India have paved the way for New Delhi and Tehran to find common ground against terror emanating from Pakistan. On February 14, 2019, over 40 of India’s paramilitary personnel were killed in Pulawama (Kashmir) when a suicide bomber attacked a convoy of Central Reserve Police Personnel (CRPF). The attack is one of the worst in recent years. The terror group Jaish-E-Muhammad claimed responsibility. On February 13, 2019, 27 members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards were killed in a suicide attack in the Sistan-Baluchistan province which shares a border with Pakistan. Iran stated the attack was carried out by a Pakistani national with the support of the Pakistani state.
In the aftermath, the Indian Foreign Minister, Sushma Swaraj, met with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Seyed Abbas Aragchchi en route to Bulgaria. In a tweet the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister stated that both sides had decided to strengthen cooperation to counter terrorism, remarking that ‘enough is enough’. This partnership is likely to evolve further. In fact, many strategic commentators in India are pitching for an India-Afghanistan-Iran security trilateral agreement to deal with terrorism.
So far, Trump’s Middle Eastern Policy has focused on Iran and his approach suits both Saudi Arabia and Israel but it is opposed by a number of significant US allies. As a result of the recent terror attack in Pulwama, geopolitical developments within South Asia are extremely important. Thus, the US and GCC countries need to keep a close watch on developments in South Asia and how India-Pakistan ties pan out over the next few weeks. If Iran strengthens ties with India, and given the fact that it already has Russian support, achieving its isolation will be tough for America. New Delhi may have no option but to enhance links with Tehran given its own national security interests in the region. Trump needs to be more pragmatic towards Iran and should think of an approach acceptable to all, and not just the small cabal within his Cabinet that view the region from an anti-modern perspective.