Iranian officials have been responding with a clear air of bravado to the plans for an international summit focused on Middle Eastern issues, during which US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to make a renewed pitch for an “Arab NATO” and a broad coalition of opposition to Iran’s growing regional influence. A few days after the Warsaw summit was announced, Ali Shamkhani, the head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council attempted to portray the White House’s global appeal as evidence of the prior failure of its efforts to enforce economic pressure and diplomatic isolation.
“When someone who says ‘sanctions with maximum pressure’ is reduced to holding ‘seminars and conferences’, it only means that he has lost the upper hand,” Shamkhani told reporters. He went on to say that the Trump administration’s plans for the event showcase “confusion”, and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted that the summit would constitute a “desperate circus”.
Of course, it remains to be seen whether the summit on February 13th and 14th lives up to the State Department’s vision. But there is certainly no basis for Islamic Republic of Iran to dismiss it ahead of time, other than to broadcast a show of strength and unfounded confidence.
In fact, that is rather transparently the intention behind the Iran’s response. And it betrays the fact that it is that regime, not the US or any of its allies, that is “desperate” and “confused” as to how to proceed through this period of increasing international scrutiny and domestic unrest. It is actually difficult to imagine how organizing an international conference could be construed as a retreat. The US policy of “maximum pressure” is still developing, and the ongoing American outreach to foreign allies and partners has always been clearly understood as an aspect of that development.
Notably, this is precisely the perception that was expressed in a recent statement by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), the leading coalition advocating for regime change and democratic governance in the Iranian nation. Maryam Rajavi, the President elect of the NCRI credited US with taking steps toward “rectifying and ending the disastrous policy of appeasement” that has predominated over the past four decades.
Of course, that policy has not been unique to the United States. It has deep roots in Europe, as well, as evidenced by the European Union’s apparent commitment to helping Iran evade US sanctions that were re-imposed after Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal last May. However, that commitment has seemed to waver in recent weeks, with EU member states expressing ever more serious concerns over Tehran’s anti-Western belligerence and worsening crackdowns on domestic dissent. Especially since there is information about plots to carry out terrorist attacks for which Tehran could be responsible.
In March, one such attack was thwarted in Albania, and in June two would-be bombers were arrested in Brussels while attempting to carry explosives to the annual rally organized near Paris by the NCRI. In October, Danish authorities revealed that they had arrested an Iranian agent who was plotting the murder of Iranian-Arab opposition figures. The government of Denmark then began exerting serious pressure on the rest of the EU to take appropriate actions to condemn these activities and prevent more of their kind.
Since then, the EU has adopted the sanctions that France previously imposed on the Iranian intelligence service. This and other assertive shifts in European policy have raised doubts about the future of Iranian-European relations. This in turn makes the Europeans clearly more receptive to the Trump administration’s message regarding rejection of “appeasement” strategies. In other words, and in direct contrast to the narrative being peddled by Iranian officials, it strengthens the White House’s “upper hand”.
Admittedly, the European role in all this remains somewhat up in the air. It is theoretically possible that EU member states will elect to skip the Warsaw summit, which Pompeo promised would involve geographically diverse participation leading to a broader anti-Iran coalition. But doing so would represent a reversal of the current trend toward greater scrutiny of Iran and greater awareness of the terrorist threats that continue to emanate from the regime.
That outcome is as unlikely as it is potentially disastrous, but nothing can be taken for granted until the summit convenes next month. Until then, all those who are concerned about Iran’s destructive roles in Syria and Yemen, or its persistent crackdown on domestic activists in the wake of a full year of anti-government protests should keep up the pressure on European leaders and urge them to recognize the value of the American government’s assertive shift in foreign policy.
Most of the current evidence points to that shift being embraced as model for Western democracies and Iran’s global adversaries. But until that happens, the possibility remains that Iran’s propaganda about successful defiance of Western power – presently just a fantasy – could become real in the face of European inaction.
*Ryszard Czarnecki is a member of the European Parliament and a former European minister of Poland.