US and Israel say confrontation with Iran needed for peace

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EU fears that a US and Polish-led summit on the Middle East is designed largely to build an alliance against Iran appear to have been confirmed, when the Israeli prime minister and the US secretary of state said a confrontation with Iran was necessary to achieve peace in the region.

Mike Pompeo, the US’s top diplomat, did not single out Iran in his formal opening statement, but in separate remarks to reporters said: “You can’t achieve stability in the Middle East without confronting Iran. It’s just not possible.

“There are malign influences in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq,” he added, referring to Iran-supported groups. “The three H’s: the Houthis, Hamas and Hezbollah – these are real threats.”

The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, had earlier withdrawn a claim on his Twitter account, said to be the product of a mistranslation, that he was in Warsaw to discuss “war with Iran”.

EU countries – France, Germany and the UK – have stuck by a nuclear deal signed with Iran in 2015, but Donald Trump last year pulled out, imposing sweeping economic sanctions, including a ban on the purchase of Iran’s oil exports. The main European powers have either sent low-level delegations or remained at the summit briefly, fearing US motivations for the meeting.

By contrast, the US is represented in Warsaw by Pompeo, the vice-president, Mike Pence, and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and special aide on the Middle East. It is expected Kushner will discuss his peace plan with Arab leaders in private as well as at a public session on the sidelines of the summit with the former Norwegian foreign minister Børge Brende.

Netanyahu has described the opening dinner at which he sat alongside senior officials from Arab Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, as a “historical turning point”. Many Arab states do not recognise Israel, and have not shared a diplomatic stage with the country since a Middle East peace conference in Madrid in 1991, but they have been driven together in a common fear of Iran.

It remains to be seen how far the new alliance can extend to a combined approach to the Palestinian issue. Netanyahu has also argued that the Arab world is open to normalised economic ties with Israel that are not dependent on a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

At the opening session, he sat next to Khaled Alyemany, the foreign minister of Yemen, and the two exchanged a brief smile. Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s Middle East envoy, said on Twitter that Alyemany offered his microphone to Netanyahu, whose own had broken. Netanyahu then joked it signalled a “new cooperation between Israel and Yemen”, Greenblatt said. Palestinian officials have condemned the summit.

Netanyahu, facing elections shortly, told reporters in Warsaw: “In a room of some 60 foreign ministers representative of dozens of governments, an Israeli prime minister and the foreign ministers of the leading Arab countries stood together and spoke with unusual force, clarity and unity against the common threat of the Iranian regime.

“I think this marks a change and important understanding of what threatens our future, what we need to do to secure it, and the possibility that cooperation will extend beyond security in every realm of life.”

Officials said that Netanyahu spoke around the same table as senior officials of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, none of which have relations with Israel. Israel only has diplomatic relations with two Arab states, neighbouring Egypt and Jordan.

Netanyahu also met one-on-one in Warsaw with Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, the foreign minister of Oman, where he travelled late last year.

In his opening speech, Pompeo did not mention Iran by name, but called for a new era of co-operation in the Middle East, adding “no country could afford to stay on the sidelines”.

The call will be met sceptically by EU leaders who feel they were not consulted on the US decision to pull out of the Iran deal, or the planned withdrawal of 2,000 US troops from Syria.

The Iranian foreign minister, Javed Zarif, described the Warsaw conference as “dead on arrival”, and another attempt by the US to pursue an unfounded obsession with Iran.

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A former US ambassador to Sweden, Azita Raji, also dismissed the event saying “conducting a lacklustre and rambling conference on the Middle East shows that it is amateur hour at the White House and is ultimately another blow to US prestige and leadership”.

The Warsaw conference came as the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, increasingly seen as a key player in the Middle East, hosted his Iranian and Turkish counterparts to discuss a final settlement in the Syrian civil war, including the presence of a large number of Islamist fighters in Idlib province.

The three countries – especially Turkey and Iran – do not agree on the final settlement in Syria, but have been uneasily co-operating to find a solution that does not betray their interests.

Iran wants Turkey to agree that Syrian forces should be deployed along the border with Turkey, but there has also been a separate US discussion of an international force to assuage Kurdish fears of Turkish invasion of Kurdish areas once US forces depart.

The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said on Wednesday that the leaders would also discuss forming a special committee tasked with drawing up a new postwar constitution for Syria. The composition of this committee, including the role of civil society has been in dispute for more than a year. The previous UN special envoy, Staffan de Mistura, admitted on his retirement in December he had not overcome mainly Syrian government objections to his vision for the committee’s membership.



Middle East and North Africa

US foreign policy




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