Evaluating Middle Eastern Politics after Sochi and Warsaw Conferences
Two competing diplomatic meetings were held on February 14, clearly drawing the lines for different strategies in the Middle East.
Many analysts classified the United States-led conference as anti-Iran, and the event divided the United States from its European allies. Turkey and Iran attended Russia’s Sochi summit on the future of the Syrian war, and in many ways, it was a direct response to America’s tough stance on Iran.
Unfortunately for the United States, not all of its allies were on board with the messaging of the meeting with many European nations sending low-level diplomats. The one noticeable big European name in attendance was the United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt.
Pressuring European nations to reject the 2015 Iran nuclear deal seemed to be on the top of the agenda for the Americans. At the meeting in Warsaw and later in the week at the Munich Security Conference, Vice President Mike Pence called on European leaders to follow America’s lead and pull out of the Iranian nuclear deal. But, this hard line on Iran did not go down well with European allies, and leaders from the European Union and crucial member states Germany, France, and the United Kingdom all reiterated their commitment to a diplomatic solution with Iran.
While the White House failed to convince the Europeans to join their bloc, the conference did clearly outline once again who is on America’s side. Israel and Saudi Arabia are the biggest players pushing for a tougher stance on Iran. Saudi Arabia leads a group of Gulf states pushing for an anti-Iran foreign policy strategy and is in conflict with Iran on a myriad of foreign policy issues including Qatar, Syria, and Yemen.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was one of the biggest players at the Warsaw conference, however, his appearance and communication on the event will have done little to convince European allies to join their anti-Iran alliance. Netanyahu tweeted a statement referencing “the common interest of war with Iran”. The tweet was later deleted and “war with” was replaced by “combating” in order to tone down their messaging.
Despite the gaffe, Netanyahu did seek further rapprochement at the Warsaw meeting with other countries within the anti-Iran bloc. Netanyahu met with Oman’s foreign minister, but both Israel and Oman have said formal ties between the two countries are yet to be formally established.
Russia’s conference in Sochi featured a much different and more united tone than could be found in Warsaw. Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the same day America called on its allies to join forces to put sanctions on Iran.
The three nations’ primary concern was the Syrian conflict. All three countries have troops involved in the war and support holding peace talks to end the bloody conflict. However, the meeting did highlight some of the differences the three countries have in terms of strategy.
Turkey backs a rebel group while Russia and Iran have been supportive of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Turkey also supports a more cautious approach compared to the other two conference attendees in large part because a large offensive could deepen the refugee crisis spilling into Turkey.
While the United States is divided with its allies over Iran, Russia and Turkey have taken the opportunity to deepen cooperation with Iran in attempt to have more say over the end of the Syrian conflict and the Middle East as a whole. American President Donald Trump’s commitment to remove American troops from the region will cause some problems for participants in the conflict, but it assures other actors a bigger seat at the table.
The Middle East’s near geopolitical future is currently divided on the issue of Iran. Saudi Arabia’s Gulf state coalition has firm backing from the United States, however, America’s isolation from its western allies is becoming more clearly defined. The United States will have to stomach strained ties with European nations who have taken a firm stance on the Iran nuclear deal.
On the other hand, Russia and Turkey are enjoying increased relations with Iran, a country isolated from many potential regional partners. A Russia-Turkey-Iran coalition stands to gain influence in the Middle East if America’s partnerships begin to crumble.
In the wake of the duelling conferences, Iranian President Rouhani made overtures to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf counterparts. Saudi Arabia and Iran are locked in multiple proxy wars, but Iran has been appealing to Saudi Arabia to lessen their alliance with America and turn toward Iran for cooperation in the region.
Iran’s overtures have mostly fallen on deaf ears, and Saudi Arabia has given little indication that they are receptive to such ideas, and Iran and Saudi Arabia will continue as enemies. However, with America’s foreign policy strategies frequently changing on a whim, Middle East alliances could reshape quickly if the wrong moves are made.