Analysis

In Warsaw, Dream of Arab NATO Against Iran Shows Its Cracks

The drift between the U.S. and European countries over the nuclear deal may not be resolved, but a photo-op for Netanyahu alongside Arab leaders could bolster diplomatic ties

Participants pose for a photo at the Middle East conference at the Royal Castle in Warsaw, Poland, February 13, 2019.
Kacper Pempel/Reuters

The American, European, Arab and Israeli summit being held on Thursday in Warsaw is intended to build an international coalition to apply pressure on Iran and force countries who refuse to take part in American sanctions U.S President Donald Trump imposed on Iran in November to participate. But for now, this summit is more like a party and many of those invited have arrived wearing a mask to block bad odors.

The star of the summit was supposed to be Iran, but the deep disagreements between some of the European countries and the Trump administration on the question of sanctions has caused some participants, such as Germany and France, to send low level representatives. The British foreign minister announced he would be present for only a short time; Turkey, an important member of NATO and an ally of Iran, will not send a representative and said that the Turkish embassy in Warsaw would follow the events of the conference. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Bahrain, Jordan, Oman and Israel will be represented by high level delegations of heads of state, prime ministers and foreign ministers – while Egypt will be represented its deputy foreign minister.

>>Read more: Warsaw summit will test U.S. gamble on Israeli-Arab pact against Iran | Analysis ■ How Trump is forcing Europe to give up on the Iran deal | Explained 

All of these groups have their own interests and their participation does not show that they are willing to establish an active joint framework to act against Iran. For Poland, the host, the importance of the summit is in the message it hopes to give to Moscow, which it sees as a strategic threat – by which the cooperation between Poland and the United States is sustainable. Poland hopes the United States will build a permanent military base in the country, in addition to the ballistic missiles already based there. The sanctions against Iran, which it supports, do not particularly interest the country.

Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United States are working to establish a cooperative international mechanism whose goals and authority are hazy. If the intention is to force Iran to hold negotiations on a new nuclear agreement and on the halting of its ballistic missile program, meaning that these countries see Iran a legitimate partner that can be relied on to keep future agreements, otherwise there is no point in obligating it to hold new negotiations. If this is their view of Iran, then we can only wonder why Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal rather than seeking further negotiations with Iran. If the goal is to build a broad coalition in support of the sanctions, which will force Iran to give in to U.S. demands without negotiation, such a conference cannot help as without the cooperation of Russia, China and Iraq, the holes in the sanctions could very well be too large to force Iran’s hand.

Iran, which vehemently opposes changing the nuclear agreement and any intervention in its ballistic missile program, has already made it clear that it intends on conducting no negotiations on these two issues, mostly because any negotiations with the United States is doomed to failure because the United States has proved in the past that it is an unreliable partner for agreements. The policy of most member countries of the European Union, and in particular Germany, Britain and France – the European bridesmaids of the nuclear deal – feel the nuclear deal must be left as is, remove the sanctions on Iran as the nuclear deal states and to conduct negotiations on amending the agreement and the Iranian ballistic missile plan.

These three countries are now trying to bypass the new sanctions regime using INSTEX (The Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges), which will enable trade with Iran through a joint special-purpose vehicle that will not use dollars as its base currency. This invention may not be able to replace the large trade agreements Iran signed with European and other companies since the nuclear deal was signed, and will also not help it to overcome the financial crisis it faces. However it is expected that the European effort will provide Iran with justification to continue and keep to the nuclear deal and not return to developing its nuclear program.

Iranians burn flags of Israel and the United States during commemorations of the 40th anniversary of Islamic Revolution in the capital Tehran, February 11, 2019.
AFP

At the same time, the European bypass makes the deep divide between the policies of the EU and Washington completely clear – a split that all the charms of the Polish hospitality cannot overcome. And this is how – without having intended to do so – Trump’s policy is building a European – Russian bloc and at the same time is creating an international bloc as an alternative to the United Nations, two results that could well play into Iran’s hands in the end.

Saudi Arabia and Israel are the most obvious partners in any policy against Iran, but this does not mean that Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Gulf States will be willing to embrace Israel – mostly because of Israel’s policies concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Such a summit could have promoted Israeli – Arab cooperation if the U.S. and Israel had agreed to include the Israeli – Palestinian conflict in its discussions, but then it would have been doubtful whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would have been willing to attend the forum, just as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has passed on partcipating due to the boycott he has imposed on the American administration.

For Netanyahu this is an opportunity to be photographed with Arab leaders who do not have formal diplomatic relations with Israel, pictures that will certainly decorate the Likud’s campaign posters and billboards. It can already be assumed that the bundle of gifts Netanyahu will bring back from Warsaw will contain mostly empty words and declarations – and no real achievement on the Iran question. But such an Israeli - Arab meeting, the first since the international summits that accompanied the Oslo Accords in the 1990s, is a positive development and even if it does not supply concrete diplomatic results such as the establishment of diplomatic relations or trade agreements, it still could very well advance understandings with Israel, waken the across-the-board official Arab ban not to conduct contacts with Israel – and it also strengthens the foundations of the formal agreements Israel has with Egypt and Jordan.

The paradox is that thanks to, or because of, Iran a new diplomatic framework is being woven that it seems never would have come together if it was not for the shared strategic interests of enemy nations.