By Gabriela Billini, AIC Research Fellow
In January 2019, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took the opportunity of a regional trip to announce a new foreign policy strategy regarding Iran. This new strategy is to build a coalition that will actively counter Iranian regional influence and build an overall consensus against Iran. This strategy is to be reinforced in an upcoming conference in Warsaw, Poland, titled the Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East.
Below are some key details regarding the new coalition and background on the conference in Warsaw, taking place on February 13th-14th, which is expected to promote this foreign policy
What is the anti-Iran coalition?
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took an eight-country trip throughout the Middle East this past January in order to discuss regional issues, but at the core of it stood a message on “the need to counter the greatest threat of all in the Middle East, the Iranian regime and its campaigns of terrorism and destruction.”
The trip, called an “anti-Iran tour” by some, was a campaign to obtain support for a coalition against Iran, previously called for by Pompeo in an interview with CNBC. The tour included stops in Egypt, Jordan and the GCC member states, all with the primary aim to develop a club of nations allied against Iran’s current foreign policies.
In a speech delivered at the American University in Cairo during this tour, Pompeo stated the US’ determination in controlling Iran’s regional behavior: “It is important to know also that we will not ease our campaign to stop Iran’s malevolent influence and actions against this region and the world. The nations of the Middle East will never enjoy security, achieve economic stability, or advance the dreams of their people if Iran’s revolutionary regime persists on its current course.”
He also cited specific examples of ways that Iran’s regional enemies have worked to counter it, noting that “the UAE has canceled its imports of Iranian condensate following the re-imposition of American sanctions. Bahrain has exposed the Revolutionary Guard proxies that are active in its country, and which – and working – is working to stop Iran’s illicit maritime activities in its region.”
Pompeo’s aims to garner strong support for the coalition are ambitious. In the same CNBC interview, he stated, “[...]an element of this trip is absolutely to continue to build up the coalition – the coalition that includes Gulf states, the coalition that includes Israel, the coalition that includes European countries and Asian countries all around the world that understand that the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism needs to cease that activity.”
To garnish more support for the coalition against Iran, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley echoed these statements at a military hangar near Washington, D.C. where she spoke about Iran transferring ballistic missiles to Houthi rebels in Yemen, thereby contributing more hostilities and danger in an already complicated civil war. As she stood before remnants of Iranian-made weapons, she said the US would “build a coalition to really push back against Iran and what they're doing,” and added that Iran is “fanning the flames of conflict” in the Middle East. Iran continues to deny that it provides weapons to the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
What is the coalition aiming to accomplish?
Considering the Trump Administration’s concerns regarding Iran’s activities in the Middle East and previous statements from Pompeo and Hailey, we can extract that the coalition will be designed to challenge and in turn weaken Iranian influence in the region, primarily by targeting its military campaigns. The New York Times reports that Pompeo has not yet provided concrete examples or specific details regarding what the coalition will be doing to meet these ends, nor how it intends to do so.
Many analysts are warning that continuing hardline policies like these and building an anti-Iran coalition will only provoke Iran into outright armed conflict with the U.S. Such an encounter would be catastrophic for a region already fighting multiple civil wars, violent extremism, sectarianism, and experiencing an intense battle for regional influence. The constant stream of accusations and challenges against the regime, part of the US’ “maximum pressure” Iran policy is also straining relations with traditional U.S. allies, such as France, Germany and the European Union as a whole. Though these allies have followed suit on targeted economic sanctions against Iran for specific actions, they are still collaborating with Iran to protect what credibility remains of the JCPOA.
Who is onboard?
This is a complicated question to answer because despite Pompeo’s efforts, the amount of support for the coalition has varied. The complex relations between the various Arab states, for example, plays an important role in how much support each state has for the coalition. The various, intertwined regional alliances and partnerships are in many instances more important to each individual country’s own national security than acceding to the foreign policy agenda of a single (albeit major) foreign power.
Relevant regional factors include: (i) Hezbollah’s political and security role in Lebanese society and Iran’s active funding and support for the group; (ii) the diplomatic crisis involving Qatar since 2017 and its continued isolation from former Gulf partners and increasing rapprochement with Iran; (iii) Iran’s strong support for the Syrian regime and Assad’s dependence on Iranian forces for survival; (iv) Oman’s strong role as mediator for the region and its interest in maintaining its neutral ties with Iran; among many others.
Another factor that undermines the coalition is the opposition of high-level members in the U.S. intelligence community to President Trump’s evaluation of Iran as a serious nuclear threat. Top intelligence officials have spoken out against Trump’s claims that Iran has not complied with the JCPOA agreement and has begun pursuing nuclear technology. This may put into question the purpose and grounds upon which the coalition is based.
One country that is intensely committed to the coalition against Iran, is Israel, which has recently attacked Iranian targets in Syria. Saudi Arabia is also a strong, natural supporter, which has, as Pompeo stated in his Cairo speech, “worked with us to counter Iranian expansion and regional influence.” In response to Nikki Haley's presentation earlier this year, the Saudi government showed support for her statements and added its condemnation on "the Iranian regime for its flagrant violations of the international resolutions and norms."
There are many other countries the United States has approached to join this coalition, though there have been mixed reactions, discussed below.
What are the implications of a coalition against Iran for the region?
To date, there have not been any specific, public policies announced by the coalition and so it is hard to tell what actions the US and its allies may want to take in which of the many countries where Iran is involved. Options that are not off the table, however, include challenges to Iran’s activities in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria or Yemen through military means; even a potential attack against Iran itself - potentially drastically exacerbating the difficulties on the ground for civilians in the region.
The conference in Warsaw may provide some concrete policy decisions which will help us better understand what the United States and conference attendees will commit to doing.
How does the conference in Warsaw play into the coalition?
The United States Government announced the Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East, taking place on 13-14 February 2019 and co-hosted by Poland. The statement reads that the objective for the conference is, “an opportunity for countries to share their perspectives both from within and outside the region. This includes a conversation on current regional crises as well as international efforts to address them.” Officially, the topics on the agenda are: 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.
Some believe that the conference is unofficially an extension of the anti-Iran campaign, with various U.S. allies refusing to attend, including European partners. European allies flat out objected to U.S. efforts to build a coalition against Iran at this conference. Despite Pompeo’s clear intentions outlined in the interview and speech cited earlier, the conference later had to be described as one for brainstorming on the Middle East at large.
Since then, US representative at the UN Jonathan Cohen stated that the scope of the discussion would be “much broader than any one country or set of issues,” later stressing that the conference was “not the venue to demonise or attack Iran.”
The European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), for example, has reported that foreign ministers of Russia and France, and the European Union high representative, will not go due to the political nature of it. Russia also stated it will not attend the conference.
Some say this conference is an effort to divide the EU on Iran just at the moment when the European Union is working hard to protect the JCPOA and is trying to continue trade and business relations with Iran. The full list of invited countries has not been released, but various sources have reported that an estimated 70 countries are invited. Who will actually attend will reveal the world’s views on the U.S.’ new foreign policy and may tip the scales on the strength of this particular campaign.
Notably, Poland has not invited Iran to the conference, restricting the country from responding directly to any claims against it. The country’s Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz said that Iran’s presence would impede discussions, but insisted that the conference would nonetheless help break the impasse of U.S.-Iranian discord, despite the contentious message Pompeo has shared internationally.
The Times of Israel has reported a Polish official stating that “despite serving as co-host, Poland still supports the international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program from which US President Donald Trump withdrew last year.”
Naturally, Iran has not taken to the news of this conference very positively. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif criticized the conference and Poland’s participation in a tweet, “Those who attended last US anti-Iran show are either dead, disgraced or marginalized. And Iran is stronger than ever. Polish Govt can’t wash the shame: while Iran saved Poles in WWII, it now hosts desperate anti-Iran circus.”
Lebanon has also been kept off the list of invitees due to an Iranian “sensitivity.” A Lebanese official told Asharq Alawsat that Lebanon was not invited because of the fact that “Beirut is incapable to withstand the consequences of decisions expected from the summit.”
In addition, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is said to be delivering a speech at the conference. Considering Israel’s opposition to the JCPOA, recent attacks on Iranian targets in Syria and its overall tone on Iran, the speech may reduce any appearance of objectivity of the conference, however minimal.
The way the coalition against Iran will take shape will depend a lot on the discussions that take place at the Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East. Their conclusions may include policies that require direct - possibly military - action by coalition members, or may simply add to the negative rhetoric and further strain ties between Washington and Tehran.
The results of this conference, be they increased sanctions, military maneuvers or simply increased inflammatory rhetoric - may, however, provoke Iran into armed conflict with the United States, introducing additional complexities and devastation to a region that is already rife with conflict.
Having a conference to discuss major regional issues without Iran, however - regardless of whether it is seen as a regional troublemaker - is a grave error, which will only result in unproductive policies, as opposed to inclusive, collaborative ones. If the conference were truly intended to provide constructive solutions that are beneficial for the stability of the Middle East and the security and safety of its civilians and their governments, then Iran, as a major player in the region, should be invited to participate in constructive, inclusive solutions.