Pence, at summit, lashes out at Europeans over Iran

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands as they meet in Warsaw, Poland, February 14, 2019. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

By Lesley Wroughton and Alan Charlish

WARSAW (Reuters) – U.S. Vice President Mike Pence accused leading European countries on Thursday of trying to break U.S. sanctions against Tehran, in remarks at a Middle East peace summit that were likely to further strain transatlantic relations.

Pence spoke at the conference in Warsaw attended by 60 countries, including Israel and six Gulf Arab states, but not the Palestinians or Iran.

European powers, who oppose the Trump administration’s decision to pull out of a nuclear deal with Iran, were openly skeptical of a conference excluding Tehran. France and Germany declined to send their top diplomats, while British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt left before Thursday’s main events.

“Sadly, some of our leading European partners have not been nearly as cooperative,” Pence said. “In fact, they have led the effort to create mechanisms to break up our sanctions.”

Trump pulled the United States last year out of the 2015 Iran deal, under which Tehran agreed to curbs on its nuclear program in return for the lifting of sanctions.

European countries say the move was a mistake and have promised to try to salvage the deal as long as Iran continues to abide by it. In practice, European companies have accepted new U.S. sanctions on Iran and abandoned plans to invest there.

Pence said a European scheme to trade with Iran, known as the Special Purpose Vehicle, was “an effort to break American sanctions against Iran’s murderous revolutionary regime”.

“It is an ill-advised step that will only strengthen Iran, weaken the EU and create still more distance between Europe and the United States,” he said.

The European trade vehicle was conceived as a way to help match Iranian oil and gas exports against purchases of EU goods. However, those ambitions have been scaled back, with diplomats saying that, realistically, it will be used only for trade, for example of humanitarian products or food, allowed by Washington.

The summit venue in Poland could itself be seen as a rebuke to Washington’s traditional Western European allies, who are at odds with a nationalist government in Warsaw over moves the EU says curb judicial independence and free speech.

The summit was notable because of the presence of Israel alongside wealthy Arab states. Washington aims to narrow differences between its Israeli and Arab allies to isolate Iran.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who met with Omani Foreign Minister Yousuf bin Alawi bin Abdullahon on the sidelines on Wednesday, called the conference a “historical turning point” in combating the threat from Iran.

“DESPERATE CIRCUS”

But just as notable were the absences, not only of Iran itself — which called the meeting a “desperate circus” — but of the Palestinians, who refused to attend over what they regard as U.S. bias against them under Trump. They have been boycotting the administration since Trump reversed decades of U.S. policy in 2017 to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Chief Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erekat took aim at the Arab states for attending, citing an Arab meeting last year that reaffirmed demands that Israel first withdraw from Palestinian land before it can normalize ties with Arab countries.

“Reward the occupation, the decision to abolish the Arab Peace Initiative and the decisions of the Dhahran Summit. For what? Mediation between America and Israel on the one hand and Iran on the other,” Erekat tweeted.

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said the only path to peace was by negotiating with the Palestinian leadership represented by Abbas.

European allies were concerned that the conference would turn into an Iran-bashing session, which would only increase tensions with the Tehran.

“We strongly disagree… We want to push Iran to good results and don’t want to push Iran outside of its nuclear commitment,” a diplomat from a major European power said after Pence’s speech.

Niels Annen, Germany’s minister of state, expressed skepticism over the likely outcome.

“I am hoping for constructive signals but nobody here has the expectation that this conference will solve problems,” he told reporters on the sidelines of the meeting. “That would be unrealistic because we need a political agreement with all participants at the end of the day.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for an era of cooperation at opening remarks that were broadcast publicly. The rest of the meeting, including a presentation by White House advisor and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner on plans for Israeli-Palestinian peace, was held behind closed is doors.

Kushner and Trump’s Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt are trying to broker a peace plan to cover all core issues of the decades-old conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, U.S. official say. Release of the plan has been delayed by Palestinian anger at Trump’s change of U.S. policy on Jerusalem.

(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, Alicja Ptak, Marcin Goclowski and Marcel Kolling; Editing by Justyna Pawlak, Mark Heinrich and Peter Graff)

Netanyahu meets Omani foreign minister , hints other Arab states warming to Israel

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem February 10, 2019. Gali Tibbon/Pool via REUTERS

WARSAW (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Oman’s foreign minister on the sidelines of a U.S.-sponsored Middle East conference in Warsaw on Wednesday and hinted that other Arab countries represented there were engaging with Israel.

“Many are following this (Omani) lead, and may I say, including at this conference,” a video released by Netanyahu’s office showed him telling Yousuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, whose Gulf state hosted the Israeli leader in October.

Oman does not formally recognize Israel. Nor do Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, which share Israel’s concerns about Iranian actions in the region and also sent envoys to Warsaw.

Speaking to Netanyahu, bin Alawi said: “People in the Middle East have suffered a lot because they have stuck to the past. Now we say, this is a new era, for the future.”

The United States hopes the Warsaw gathering will ratchet up pressure against Iran despite concerns among major European countries about heightened tensions with Tehran.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller, Alison Williams, William Maclean)

U.S. to host Iran-focused global summit in Poland Feb. 13-14

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is greeted by Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa after arriving at Manama International Airport in Manama, Bahrain, Jan. 11, 2019. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States plans to jointly host a global summit focused on the Middle East, particularly Iran, next month in Poland, the U.S. State Department said on Friday.

The gathering will take place in Warsaw from Feb. 13 to Feb. 14, it said in a statement.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News in an interview to air on Friday that the meeting would “focus on Middle East stability and peace and freedom and security here in this region, and that includes an important element of making sure that Iran is not a destabilizing influence.”

Pompeo said the meeting would “bring together dozens of countries from all around the world, from Asia, from Africa, from Western Hemisphere countries, Europe too, the Middle East of course.”

The State Department did not immediately respond when asked which countries would attend. Its statement said there were strong shared interests in Middle East stability.

“The ministerial will address a range of critical issues including terrorism and extremism, missile development and proliferation, maritime trade and security, and threats posed by proxy groups across the region,” it said.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s top diplomat is visiting a number of Middle Eastern countries this week in an effort to shore up support in the region on a number of fronts, from the U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria to the Saudi-Qatar rift to the killing of U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Pompeo, in the middle of his eight-day trip through the region, has said the United States is “redoubling” its efforts to put pressure on Iran and sought to convince allies in the region that it was committed to fighting Islamic State despite Trump’s recent decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria.

Pompeo told Fox News the summit would include representatives from countries around the world to address Iran’s regional influence as the Trump administration has sought to pressure Tehran.

Trump withdrew the United States from the 2015 Iran nuclear accord and moved to reimpose sanctions on Tehran, even as other partners in the deal – including China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom – have sought to maintain the agreement.

In a shift earlier this week, the European Union moved to impose some sanctions on Iran.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey and David Brunnstrom in Washington and Lesley Wroughton in Cairo; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe, Susan Thomas and Jonathan Oatis)