Trump’s Back Door to Building Anti-Iran Front Inflames EU Divide

(Bloomberg) -- The choice of Warsaw as a staging ground for U.S. efforts to build an alliance against Iran has done little to rally European Union nations, long at odds with Poland over the erosion of democratic norms and media freedoms.

Few have answered the call before an unprecedented international summit planned in Poland next month. Given the existing divide over the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, it’s instead fed controversy and underscored the challenge of building a consensus with America’s allies on Iran. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, a staunch supporter of the 2015 deal, has said she won’t attend.

“Looks like it may be a failed attempt to create this international alliance,” said Ellie Geranmayeh, senior policy fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations. “There has been pressure, particularly on eastern European countries, to block some of the initiatives that the EU might be trying to take which would require unanimous voting.”

The EU, led by France, Germany and the U.K., has vowed to salvage the nuclear accord despite the reimposition of far-reaching U.S. sanctions, pushing ahead with plans for an independent channel to secure business with Iran. Poland, whose relations with Iran date back decades and until recently an importer of its oil, became the focal point of an attempt by the U.S. to establish a beachhead in Europe.

Trump’s Back Door to Building Anti-Iran Front Inflames EU Divide

Seemingly timed to coincide with Iran’s celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, the Feb. 13-14 gathering had the goal of discussing stability in the Middle East and “making sure that Iran is not a destabilizing influence,” according to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

For Poland, the calculus may have been simple. The initiative helps strengthen its ties with Washington, Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz told Rzeczpospolita daily on Jan. 21. The NATO member last year offered to help pay for a permanent base for U.S. troops on its soil, and name it “Fort Trump.”

It’s already downgraded its economic ties with Iran after the U.S. brought back sanctions and withdrew from the nuclear deal. Poland’s biggest state gas company, PGNiG SA, shut its Iran office in October, while the largest refiner PKN Orlen SA said a month later that it won’t buy more crude.

In response to Poland welcoming the event, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif recalled how Iran took in tens of thousands of Polish refugees fleeing the Soviet Union during World War II, and “it now hosts a desperate anti-Iran circus.”

“One of the major goals of this conference is to create division among European countries,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi told reporters on Monday, according to the state-run Tasnim news agency.

In an effort to ease the tensions, Poland dispatched Deputy Foreign Minister Maciej Lang to Tehran, where he was cited as telling his Iranian counterpart that Poland wouldn’t back “any actions against Iran.”

Poland has also tried to make a case that its decision to hold the conference doesn’t mean it’s positioning itself against the bloc or the European nations remaining party to the nuclear agreement.

“We’re pointing to the fact that the EU can’t pretend that the deal with Iran exists in an unchanged form even after the most important state has left it, and western companies have stopped cooperation with Iran,” Czaputowicz said.

While it’s still unclear who will be attending the summit in Warsaw, Israel officially notified the Polish and U.S. governments that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would take part in the conference, according to Channel 13. The premier, who frequently assails Iran as a mortal threat to Israel, will be one of the keynote speakers, it reported, citing a senior Israeli official.

Czaputowicz has said that Iranian representatives weren’t invited and on Thursday dismissed speculation that the conference would be scrapped.

The meeting was in the works for months, and Trump’s decision to pull out U.S. troops from Syria is what determined the timing, according to Geranmayeh. Although it got bogged down in disagreements over the way forward in Iran, a cancellation is unlikely.

“This was meant to be a type of concession from the U.S. side to regional actors that they are taking the Iran threat seriously despite withdrawing from Syria,” she said. “It would be face-saving for both the Europeans and the Americans to enlarge the scope and dilute the Iran element in this conference because it will give a chance to Europeans to send more senior representation that’s relevant to security issues.”

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