Donald J. Trump shakes hands with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the State Department February 6, 2019 in Washington, DC. Picture by Alex Wong/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.
Publicly, the objective of the US-sponsored conference in Warsaw on 13-14 February this week that purports to address ‘peace and security’ in the Middle East remains vague. Yet, Secretary Pompeo was clear enough in his recent Cairo speech: “Countries increasingly understand that we must confront the ayatollahs, not coddle them.” In brief, the Warsaw conference is part of America’s diplomatic offensive to marshal Europe, the Gulf states and Israel against Iran, Qatar and, perhaps, Turkey. The fact that Poland’s government went along with hosting the event also demonstrates how the US intends it to split European Union policy towards Iran. Fresh on the heels of the creation of the EU’s special purpose vehicle INSTEX, the US will be keen to nip in the bud any further European action that undermines its own anti-Iran policy. The underlying problem is, of course, that while the US and Europe share some concerns about Iran, their strategic interests differ.
The current US administration has snapped back sanctions in a way that has reset the clock on the modicum of trust that the nuclear deal had generated. To justify that it unilaterally reneged on its international commitments, the US now frames Iran’s missile program as a global security concern and points to the many armed groups in the Middle East region affiliated with Iran as regional security threats. In this logic, the prospect of nuclear-tipped Iranian missiles risks a regional arms race and poses a clear and present danger to the Gulf states. Iran’s expanding regional presence is also said to create unacceptable security risks to Israel and Saudi Arabia. The irony that the US just gave the Iranian missile program a boost by withdrawing from the nuclear deal is hard to miss. It should also be noted that Iran-affiliated armed groups in Iraq were essential in defeating the Islamic State - a key objective of the US-led coalition.
Analysis of US diplomacy and discourse after May 2018 suggests that the administration has revived its 1979 Iran-pathology with a vengeance. The key exhibit is its artificial re-creation of a regional security dilemma: the rise of Iran threatens its neighbors, they will arm up and this will create a vicious spiral. Yet, it is worth recalling that neither Iraq, Turkey, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain (except its royal family) nor Oman consider Iran a security threat. In similar vein, during a recent visit to Tehran, many Iranian analysts cogently pointed out that Iran does not consider Saudi Arabia or the Emirates as security threats although the former vastly outspends it on military kit, according to the Military Balance. In other words, the real issue is rather protecting the interests of US-allies Saudi Arabia and Israel. The first, a tribal autocracy well known for its impetuous foreign policies in places like Qatar, Yemen and Syria; the second an unflinching neo-colonial power with a growing nationalist bent.
Situated much closer to the Middle East, the strategic challenge looks different in Europe. More stability in the Middle East, not less, is critical. My interviews with officials in several European administrations make it clear that US-pursuit of regime change is considered a dangerous folly. A Western-style democracy cannot be parachuted in after 40 years of Islamic Revolution and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps control both guns and funds. This means that regime change would probably lead to a government more hardline than that of President Ahmadinejad, or to a civil war that combines the brutality of Syria with the sectarianism of Iraq.
Being on the receiving end of the Central Asian drugs route, nervously eyeing 3 million Afghan refugees in eastern Iran and facing a real threat of returning foreign fighters, few European decision-makers are likely to want to pay the price of such regime change scenarios to safeguard Saudi supremacy in the Middle East or to keep Israel safe from its own inability to make good on the Oslo agreements.
It is because of this that most European countries pursue a strategy of ‘compartmentalization’. They want to keep the nuclear deal functional as stepping stone towards greater Iranian involvement in stabilizing the Middle East, but they also intend to criticise the sometimes violent and corrosive role of armed groups affiliated with Iran, and sanction suspected assassinations in several European countries. While this strategy has shortcomings, it keeps the door open and shows greater understanding for Iran’s historical experiences during the Iran-Iraq war and in respect of the US invasions of Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003) after George Bush made Iran itself part of the ‘axis of evil’.
What is at stake in Warsaw is not so much American v. European dealings with Iran itself, but how to best pursue stability in the Middle East. From this perspective, Iranian-Saudi antagonism is an unhelpful frame. There are deeper root causes to address, such as the return of authoritarianism in Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the political use of Sunni and Shi’a religious paradigms to mobilise individuals for violence, or the historical marginalization of Shi’a populations in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. As a large and stable state in the region that has demonstrated foreign policy pragmatism and prudence, Iran is key to dealing with such conflict factors. While the historical record suggests that putting it under maximum pressure will generate maximum resistance, the real prize is to get Iran to take more responsibility for regional stability – for its own sake.