Absent Iran takes center stage at Mideast talks

Matthew Lee
Associated Press
A U.S. soldier takes a selfie with Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen, during a meeting with soldiers in Poland.

Warsaw, Poland – Although it is absent from the stage, Iran is nevertheless taking the spotlight at a Middle East security conference co-hosted by the United States and Poland that has highlighted deep divisions between the U.S. and some of its traditional allies.

Amid uncertainty over its aims and questions about what it will deliver, the conference opened late Wednesday in Warsaw with some 60 nations in attendance. Yet, in an apparent test of U.S. influence and suspicions in Europe and elsewhere over the Trump administration’s intentions in Iran, many countries aren’t sending their top diplomats and will be represented at levels lower than their invited foreign ministers.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence attended along with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his counterparts from numerous Arab nations. But France and Germany are not sending Cabinet-ranked officials, and European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini is staying away.

Russia and China aren’t participating, and the Palestinians, who have called for the meeting to be boycotted, also will be absent. Iran, which is this week celebrating the 40th anniversary of its Islamic Revolution, denounced the meeting as a “circus” aimed at “demonizing” it.

In a bid to encourage better participation, Pompeo and others sought to broaden what was initially advertised as an Iran-centric meeting to include the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the fight against the Islamic State group, and the conflicts in Syria and Yemen. That effort produced only mixed results, particularly with longtime European allies who are trying to save the 2015 Iran nuclear deal after last year’s U.S. withdrawal.

And, while the agenda gives no hint of any concrete actions that might result beyond creating “follow-on working groups” on a variety of common concerns like terrorism and cybersecurity, comments from several participants belied the underlying theme: countering Iran.

Pence will address the conference on a range of Middle East issues, Pompeo will talk about U.S. plans in Syria following President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops and Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner and his peace partner, Jason Greenblatt, will speak about their as-yet unveiled Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.

Greenblatt, whose portfolio extends only to the Israeli-Palestinian peace effort, said Iran is the top priority and derided the Palestinians for their boycott and insistence that their case is the region’s most important issue.

In a series of tweets on Wednesday, Greenblatt said the Palestinian position “impedes nations from countering the common enemy of Iran.”

“Iran is the primary threat to the future of regional peace/security,” he said. “That’s what Palestinian leaders don’t grasp; as a consequence of being detached from new realities, we see Palestinians increasingly left behind/more isolated than ever.”

On his way to Warsaw Netanyahu made clear the conference is centered on Iran.

“It is a conference that unites 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 sent out a belligerent rallying cry to his Arab partners, saying he planned to focus on the “common interest” of confronting Iran. He made the comments during an off-the-cuff interview with reporters.

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.”