US Middle East conference expected to zero in on Iran
Posted February 13, 2019 7:20 p.m. EST
CNN — The US and Poland host a Middle East conference Thursday that's meant to address a broad range of security challenges, but looks set to be dominated by Iran, which has become a source of tension between the US and allies and is reportedly causing friction within the administration as well.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set the tone Wednesday, declaring the gathering in Warsaw important because it gives Arab countries and Israel a chance to meet openly "to advance the common interest of war with Iran."
The Israeli prime minister's office later softened the statement to read "combatting Iran," but there's little doubt that Tehran remains a central focus of the ministerial meeting, even with a list of agenda items that include Syria and Yemen.
Before broadening the agenda, the US initially told allies the meeting would focus on Iran, a bête noire for national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, both of whom have advocated for regime change in Tehran in the past.
Calling out Iran
US Vice President Mike Pence will deliver a speech Thursday in which he "will essentially call out Iran for their actions," according to administration officials who added that "he will give a message to those groups that are there that if you stand with us, we will stand with you."
Outside the confines of the conference, Rudy Giuliani, President Donald Trump's personal lawyer, attended a Wednesday rally in Warsaw devoted to overthrowing the regime in Iran. "There's something about peace and stability in the Middle East," Giuliani told the crowd, "and that is we need to have a stable, decent Iran that is not fomenting tremendous problems."
The ministerial is drawing representatives from more than 50 countries, according to the State Department, which listed a series of topics that could apply generally to the Middle East or very specifically to Iran.
Attendees will discuss "regional crises and their effects on civilians in the Middle East; missile development and proliferation; cyber security and emerging threats to the energy sector; and countering extremism and illicit finance."
Other issues on the table include Syria, Yemen, humanitarian challenges and efforts to resolve the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
A senior administration official, briefing reporters in Washington about the Warsaw meeting, said, "Obviously, Iran is a key topic," and that discussions would center on its influence in the Middle East, "what we can do to help get Iran on a more helpful footing" and how to collectively push back on its malign behavior in the region.
The Trump administration says it is intent on pressuring Tehran to change its behavior in the region, not on regime change, but the aggressive US stance and Washington's decision to leave the Iran nuclear pact has frustrated European allies, creating tensions in the trans-Atlantic alliance.
Azita Raji, a former US ambassador to Sweden, said, "It is still unclear what the US expects to achieve at the Warsaw meeting. Is it to strengthen European opposition to Tehran by creating a Euro-US coalition to fight Iranian influence? Or is it about peace in the Middle East as it is now being re-billed?"
"Either way," said Raji, an Obama administration appointee, "such an ambitious agenda is doomed to fail given the lack of senior European participants, a sure sign that buy-in from our transatlantic allies is weak."
Europeans point to Iran's compliance with the nuclear deal and are pushing back against US efforts to squeeze Tehran, setting up a special economic mechanism to allow Iran to continue trade in goods permitted under the international agreement.
Some European countries declined to send senior officials to the Warsaw conference to make the point. "In the beginning it was about Iran, now it's disjointed," said one European diplomat, who pointed out that the Warsaw ministerial comes 10 days after a meeting of the 79-member coalition against ISIS, where broad Mideast issues could easily have been discussed.
A second senior administration official, briefing reporters in about the Warsaw meeting, said, "We're not disappointed with the turnout."
Bolton's 'proclivity' for action
Iran is also causing friction within the US government, a senior military official said. The military is seeking to avoid open conflict with Iran and rely instead on economic and diplomatic pressure, the administration's current approach.
However, some Pentagon military commanders believe Bolton is more strident and has a "proclivity" for action in the Gulf, the official said. In a White House video message on Monday, as Iran celebrated the 40th anniversary of its revolution against the Shah, Bolton responded to Iranian threats by telling Ayatollah Khamenei, "I don't think you will have many more anniversaries to enjoy."
The military official said that while Iran may possess threatening capabilities, it has been "deliberate" in its actions to date, carefully seeking to avoid open conflict with the US.
Vice Adm. James Malloy, the commander of US Naval Forces Central Command, told a small of group of reporters in Bahrain on Wednesday that if it wanted to, Iran is in possession of improved and dangerous weapons systems that gives it the ability to threaten to some of the world's most important waterways.
"They have a growing capability in cruise missiles, they have a growing capability in ballistic missiles, they have a growing capability in unmanned surfaced systems, all these things that we watch that are offensive, and destabilizing in nature," Malloy said.