A major U.S.-organized Middle East conference is under way in Poland, a NATO member that has tightened cooperation with Washington as a counterweight to Russia’s influence in Central and Eastern Europe.
Iran appears to be the main focus of the February 13-14 conference in Warsaw, and Tehran has labeled the gathering as a hostile act and warned of unspecified consequences for Poland.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz are the official hosts of the two-day conference, where senior officials from 60 nations are expected to attend.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence are in attendance, and U.S. sources told RFE/RL that more than 20 other countries from around the world were due to participate at a ministerial level, including Britain, Bulgaria, Italy, Georgia, Romania, Ukraine, South Korea, Brazil, and a number of Arab states such as Morocco and Saudi Arabia.
But France and Germany are not sending cabinet-level officials, and European Union foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini is staying away.
Russia and China are not participating and neither are the Palestinians, who have called for the meeting to be boycotted.
Moscow views with concern “U.S. attempts to impose unilateral geopolitical interests through initiatives presented as opinions of the entire international community,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in comments carried by the Interfax news agency.
A U.S. administration official said late last month that the conference was “not an anti-Iran meeting or a coalition-building exercise,” but that Pompeo will discuss what the official called “Iran’s destructive policies in the region.”
However, on his way to Warsaw Netanyahu made clear the conference is centered on Iran.
“It is a conference that brings together the United States, Israel, many countries in the world, many countries in the region, Arab countries, against Iran’s aggressive policy, its aggression, its desire to conquer the Middle East and destroy Israel,” he told reporters.
Netanyahu also said that together with Israel’s Arab partners, he planned to focus on confronting Iran. He made the comments during an impromptu interview with reporters on a Warsaw street, shortly after meeting Oman’s foreign minister.
Although Netanyahu used the Hebrew word “milchama,” or “war,” in his comments, his office later changed its official translation and said he was referring to a “common interest of combatting Iran.”
Addressing a press conference in Tehran, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that he believed the Warsaw conference was “dead on arrival.”
“It is another attempt by the United States to pursue an obsession with Iran that is not well-founded,” he also said.
Guillaume Xavier-Bender, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Brussels, told RFE/RL that the possible outcome of the event was unclear.
“You can’t have a discussion about peace in the Middle East without Russia, Iran, and everyone involved there,” Xavier-Bender said.
“The outcome of this conference is a mystery for everyone at this stage, because it won’t be a deal on how to move forward with Iran. There won’t be a declaration on how the U.S. and its partners in Europe can actually move forward with the Middle East peace process” between Israel and the Palestinians, he added.
The gathering also comes as Poland is pushing for the United States to open a permanent U.S. base on its territory. The U.S. Defense Department is expected to reveal its assessment of the proposal next month.
Washington and its EU allies are also at odds over the fate of the 2015 nuclear treaty that saw Iran curtailing its nuclear ambitions in exchange for Western countries lifting crippling economic sanctions.
President Donald Trump’s administration has moved to undo the deal and reimpose sanctions. EU nations, however, criticized the move and sought to keep aspects of the deal in place.
In a news conference in Warsaw on February 12, Czaputowicz said transatlantic cooperation was necessary to resolve conflicts in the Middle East.
“The European Union alone does not, in my opinion, carry sufficient political weight to try to really influence the situation in the Middle East,” he told reporters.
In remarks just ahead of the Warsaw conference, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that any negotiations with the United States “will bring nothing but material and spiritual harm.”
He also said that Tehran must be careful to limit any dealings with some “untrustworthy” European states, adding that the country “must not retreat a single step from national and revolutionary values.”