Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN and The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author; view more opinion articles on CNN.
During the conference on Middle East security this week, the United States staged a big diplomatic show and tried to rally the world behind the Trump administration’s aggressive stance against Iran. Instead of unifying its allies under a common cause, however, the administration only highlighted the growing rift between the US and its Western European allies, and clumsily overshadowed the points of agreement regarding Iran.
The ministerial meeting in Warsaw also cast a bright spotlight on another diplomatic realignment in the Middle East, where it is increasingly evident that regional priorities are changing. Some Sunni Arab countries are more concerned about Iran than any other issue, which puts them on the same side as Israel, a country they have historically shunned – at least in public.
Altogether, more than 60 countries participated in the conference co-hosted by Poland and the US State Department. But numbers alone don’t signify a diplomatic triumph, and it’s important to note key NATO allies like France and Germany sent only mid-level officials.
While the US was putting on its diplomatic road show, Russian President Vladimir Putin arranged his own counterprogramming. In the Russian resort city of Sochi, Putin hosted a more intimate group, discussing the future of Syria with the leaders of Turkey and Iran. The Sochi summit only exacerbated Europe’s irritation with Washington. European leaders are fuming at Trump’s sudden decision to pull US troops from Syria, leaving Russia, Iran and Turkey with a much freer hand to shape the country’s future.
To make matters worse, Vice President Mike Pence, in a particularly undiplomatic flurry, lambasted European allies who have refused to follow the US lead and pull out of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, known as JCPOA. Pence didn’t mince his words when he described Iran as the principal cause of instability in the Middle East, calling it a “murderous revolutionary regime” and accusing it of plotting a “new Holocaust.” He also had sharp words for Britain, France and Germany for devising a scheme that will allow the European Union to circumvent US sanctions against Iran, which will ease the flow of food and medicine before expanding to other goods. “It is an ill-advised step that will only strengthen Iran, weaken the EU and create still more distance between Europe and the US,” Pence said.
It fell to the co-host, Poland, to note the areas of agreement between the US and its allies. Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz said Europe and the US “share the same diagnosis of the situation.”
He’s not wrong – the EU and Washington are both deeply concerned about Iran, which they view as a malign and destabilizing force. Just last month, Europe imposed new limited sanctions on Tehran, freezing the assets of an Iranian intelligence unit and two officials after Netherlands, France, and Denmark accused Iran of plotting to assassinate dissidents in Europe. The only salve to this acrimonious relationship between Iran and Europe is a shared disdain for the Trump administration’s policies.
While the US and Europe both share an aversion to Iran, the disagreement lies in their differing approaches. Europeans think staying in the JCPOA is the best way to limit the risks of a bellicose regime using nuclear weapons, while the Trump administration, along with Israel and major Sunni Arab countries, believe Iran should be confronted more forcefully.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a case that is often heard in Arab capitals, and pointed to Iran’s role in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq. “You can’t achieve stability in the Middle East without confronting Iran. It’s just not possible,” Pompeo said.
Europeans reportedly tried to dissuade the US from focusing solely on Iran ahead of the conference, telling US officials that it was “not a very smart idea” to hold a meeting that would broadcast the divisions between European and American allies. But that is precisely what ended up happening.
Adding to the sense of poor planning and improvisation, Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani nearly photobombed the event when he traveled to Warsaw and spoke at a nearby anti-Iran rally organized by a controversial Iranian exile group that was once classified as a terrorist organization by the US.
If there was one figure who emerged victorious from the Warsaw conference, it was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who faces elections in April. Netanyahu was gushing with enthusiasm at the warm reception he was receiving from Arab leaders. The conference was a triumph for his campaign against the JCPOA, and a showcase for his claim to Israeli voters that he is strengthening the country in part by building ties with Arab neighbors. He should thank Iran for that.
In a move that opposition leaders said could backfire, Netanyahu’s office sent a remarkable video to a small group of journalists that showed Arab officials speaking about Israel in terms that would have previously been unthinkable. The office quickly deleted the video from YouTube, saying the release was a “technical error,” but the material had already spread by then. The video shows the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates indicating Israel’s decision to strike Iranian targets in Syria was justified. He says, “Every nation has the right to defend itself…yes.” The foreign minister of Bahrain also goes on to say, “We grew up talking about the Israel-Palestine issue as the most important issue.” But the “bigger challenge,” or “more toxic one” he says, is Iran. Without Iran’s interference, he adds, peace between Israelis and Palestinians would be much closer. That analysis is echoed by the Saudi foreign affairs minister, who says, “Who is supporting Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and undercutting the Palestinian Authority? Iran.”
On the whole, the Trump administration’s Warsaw extravaganza came across as the product of poor planning. What exactly was its objective? The administration ended up highlighting the growing rifts between the US and its closest allies, and ultimately walked away looking diplomatically inept.
A question now is whether the diplomatic shifts that were on display in Warsaw are here to stay. If Trump is re-elected in 2020, Europe will likely drift further from the US. If he is replaced, the relationship can be painstakingly repaired. As for the Middle East, there is a good chance the fledgling alliance can survive, regardless of whether Netanyahu wins the upcoming election.