People demonstrate with banners and placards during a rally of supporters of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, demanding tougher policy on Iran and its violation of human rights in Warsaw on February 13, 2019. Image Credit: AFP

Warsaw: Foreign ministers and senior officials from 60 nations gathered in the Polish capital Warsaw today where the United States hopes to ratchet up pressure against Iran despite concerns among major European countries about heightened tensions with Tehran.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo predicted that the conference will “deliver really good outcomes” and played down the impact of lower-level participation. He told reporters in Slovakia on Tuesday that this “is going to be a serious concrete discussion about a broad range of topics that range from counterterrorism to the malign influence that Iran has played in the Middle East towards its instability”.

According to the agenda, US Vice-President Mike Pence will address the conference on a range of Mideast regional issues, Pompeo will talk about US plans in Syria following US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops and Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner will speak about his as-yet unveiled Middle East peace plan.

“We think we will make real progress,” Pompeo said. “We think there’ll be dozens of nations there seriously working towards a better, more stable Middle East, and I’m hoping by the time we leave on Thursday we’ll have achieved that.”

He did not, however, offer any details about specific outcomes.

However, the absence of foreign ministers from major European powers, Germany and France, highlights festering tensions with the European Union (EU) over Trump’s decision last year to withdraw from a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and reimpose sanctions.

“Some countries are having their foreign ministers come. Other countries are not. That’s their choice,” Pompeo told a news conference.

While countries such as France, Germany and Britain have opened a new channel for non-dollar trade with Iran to avert US sanctions and keep the nuclear deal afloat, they have criticised Tehran’s ballistic missile programme.

“There will be discussions about Iran’s influence in the Middle East, what we can do to help get Iran on a more helpful footing that it has been, to collectively push back on some of its malign behaviour in the region,” a senior US official said of the Warsaw agenda.

New US sanctions, mainly targeted at cutting off revenue from Iran’s oil sector, have largely succeeded in persuading European companies to abandon business with Iran.

Iran has threatened to pull out of the deal unless the European powers enable it to receive economic benefits. The Europeans have promised to help companies do business with Iran as long as it abides by the deal.

The US, Israel and many Arab States see Iran as a malevolent influence in the region, seeking to expand its role at every opportunity. They were sceptical about the 2015 nuclear deal that was intended to constrain Iran’s nuclear activities.

Israel in particular stands with the US and the Saudis here.

It is confronting a growing Iranian military presence in Syria and Lebanon.

It is actively engaged in a battle of attrition against Iranian forces and proxy militias in the region.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is likely to argue that Iran should not be looked at through the prism of divisions between the US and Europe over the nuclear deal.

Instead he will argue that it is European values that are at stake. Iran’s behaviour — its support for terrorism; its human rights abuses, the detention of foreign nationals — are all issues that should matter to European governments.

Ahead of the meeting Saudi King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz said the kingdom was committed to an independent Palestinian state with occupied east Jerusalem.

The monarch was speaking during a meeting with visiting Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Riyadh.

King Salman said his country “permanently stands by Palestine and its people’s right to an independent state with east Jerusalem as its capital”, reported the official Saudi Press Agency.

The pledge comes as the US is expected to offer hints of its proposals for peace between Israel and the Palestinians at a conference in Poland.