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US-led Warsaw summit vies with parallel Syria talks

Kacper Pempel, Reuters | US VP Mike Pence, Polish President Andrzej Duda and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talk during the family photo at the Middle East conference at the Royal Castle in Warsaw, Poland, on February 13, 2019.

The United States and Israel will lead a new push to pressure Iran at a conference on Thursday in Warsaw which is as notable for its absences as its attendees.


US Vice President Mike Pence and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are both set to address the 60-nation gathering on Valentine’s Day, which will promote a US-led vision of the world that includes no love for Iran.

But most major European nations sent only low-level officials, alarmed at President Donald Trump’s bellicose tone on Iran.

And Russian President Vladimir Putin has managed to divert the spotlight by holding a simultaneous summit in the resort of Sochi with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the future of war-battered Syria.

Also casting a cloud over the Warsaw talks, a suicide car bombing in southeastern Iran on Wednesday killed 27 troops of the elite Revolutionary Guards who were returning from patrol, according to the force.

Iran quickly linked the attack to the Warsaw conference, where supporters of the formerly armed opposition plan a second day of protests on Thursday.

Dubbing the meeting in Poland the “WarsawCircus”, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said it was “no coincidence that Iran is hit by terror on the very day” the talks began.

But an extremist group from the Sunni Muslim minority claimed responsibility for the attack in the volatile southeastern Baluchistan region bordering Pakistan.

Sunni militants were also held responsible for a major assault on a military parade in southwestern Iran in September.

The latest violence and the conference come just as the Shiite clerical regime was celebrating 40 years since the Islamic revolution that overthrew the pro-US shah.

Growing US pressure on Iran

Iran has been comparatively stable in a turbulent region in recent years. But President Donald Trump has boasted of growing unrest and economic insecurities after he slapped on biting sanctions.

Trump walked away from what he called a “terrible” 2015 deal negotiated by his predecessor Barack Obama in which Iran constrained its nuclear programme in return for sanctions relief.

The European Union has defied Trump by not only backing the accord, with which UN inspectors say Iran is complying, but setting up a financial tool for European firms to skirt US sanctions and keep doing business in the Middle East’s second most populous country.

Even Poland always eager to please the United States as it fears a resurgent Russia has gone to pains to say that it still backs the agreement alongside other European members.

Poland and the United States toned down the conference to a vague goal of seeking stability in the Middle East without specifically mentioning Iran.

Netanyahu has been unflinching in his criticism of Iran’s leaders, who do not recognise Israel’s right to exist.

One result of Netanyahu’s campaign has been to put him into an unofficial coalition with Israel’s longtime Arab adversaries that also dislike Iran.

Netanyahu tweeted a photo of himself meeting in Warsaw with Oman’s foreign minister, Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, calling it a “revolution in Israel’s foreign relations!”

The Israeli leader paid a rare visit last year to the Gulf sultanate, which has no official ties with Israel but has sought to smooth relations with powers across the region, including Iran.

Guarded hopes on Yemen

The sole senior official from a major European power to attend is British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who said he wanted to focus on ending the crisis in Yemen.

Several million Yemenis are on the brink of starvation and the country has suffered one of the worst cholera outbreaks in modern times, as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates backed by the United States seek to bomb and blockade Iranian-linked Huthi rebels into surrender.

Hunt whose country is also a major arms supplier to Riyadh met Tuesday evening in Warsaw jointly with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and senior officials from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

In a joint statement, the four countries said they hoped to expand on a seven-week ceasefire that has largely held in the crucial port city of Hodeida but accused the Huthis of presenting obstacles.

“The ministers agreed that there is a window of opportunity to end the conflict in Yemen and to redouble their efforts to reach a political solution,” they said.


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