WARSAW — Before top officials from 65 nations began meeting in Warsaw at a US-led conference on Middle East security, an unmistakable voice rang out at a rally outside the city’s main stadium, calling for regime change in Iran: former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Giuliani contended he was there representing an Iranian opposition group, not his “more famous client,” President Trump. But his unvarnished declaration that Iran’s leaders are “assassins, they are murderers, and they should be out of power” seemed to set the tone for a meeting that US officials told nervous European officials would be on a wide range of security matters affecting the Middle East, not just about ramping up economic pressure on Tehran.
As Giuliani spoke to a few hundred protesters against the Iranian government from an opposition group, the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, or People’s Mujahedeen, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in northeastern Poland witnessing live-fire exercises intended to send a message to Russian forces seeking to undermine NATO. And Vice President Mike Pence, joined by the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was landing in Warsaw for what amounts to the largest diplomatic gathering the Trump administration has organized in its first two years.
It is a session that makes some of America’s closest allies nervous, starting with Britain, France, and Germany, all of whom have vociferously protested Trump’s decision last year to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Few issues have so divided the core European allies from Washington, and in recent weeks they have all embraced a sanctions-busting barter system that would enable Iran to trade in oil, defying Trump. The French and Germans are sending diplomats to the meeting, rather than their foreign ministers.
Britain’s foreign minister, Jeremy Hunt, agreed to attend at the last moment, after being promised he could lead a session on Yemen. And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel arrived looking for a chance to edge closer to the Sunni Arab states that share his desire to confront or contain Iran’s military.
Running for reelection in April while still under the threat of indictment in Israel, Netanyahu is looking for a major win. If he could use the Iran threat as a way to openly display Israel’s strengthening relations with its onetime Arab adversaries, that would be such a win.
Iran’s expansion into Syria is Netanyahu’s biggest concern, Dore Gold, former director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, said, and the Warsaw summit could help persuade the international community that he is not exaggerating the threat.
“It’s not Israel in the front row, and Arab states secretly promoting an agenda to get Iran out of Syria,” Gold said. “It’s overt, public, and only strengthens the case that Israel’s been making over the last year.”
In response to the US-led meeting, President Vladimir Putin of Russia announced a summit of his own with the leaders of Iran and Turkey in Sochi on Thursday.
Pompeo, who visited US troops at the NATO base at Orzysz, about 40 miles from the Russian border at Kaliningrad, talked about Russia as a threat in far stronger terms than Trump has and sharply criticized Putin’s actions.
“Russia has grand designs of dominating Europe and reasserting its influence on the world stage,” he said. “Vladimir Putin seeks to splinter the NATO alliance, weaken the United States, and disrupt Western democracies.”
He referred to Russian “hybrid warfare” against the United States even as Trump continues to question whether Russia was behind any of the election interference in 2016.
Promising to counter any Russian threat, Pompeo said the United States would support an “enhanced forward presence” on “Europe’s eastern flank.”
“Poland’s own history reminds us that enduring deterrence measures should be at the forefront of our strategic thinking,” he said.
It was a message reiterated by Pence, who arrived in Warsaw on Wednesday morning and spent much of the day greeting US and Polish troops and stressing the importance of a US-Polish alliance to President Andrzej Duda. He had a receptive audience in Duda, who has fervently pushed the Trump administration for a greater US military presence in the country, once going so far as to suggest a permanent base called “Fort Trump.”
In a military briefing, Pence heard from Colonel John Downey, a defense attaché who said active discussions were underway to expand the US military presence in Poland, but he added that those talks were “unfortunately” still in the “discreet discussions” stages.
During a bilateral meeting with Duda, the vice president said that he would make sure Trump heard Poland’s request that the US military presence in the country “continue and even expand” from the current troop levels of around 4,500.
“The Polish people need no lectures on the dangers of an aggressive Russia,” Pence said to Duda, “and our neighbors to the east would do well not to underestimate the capabilities of our combined armed forces.”
The Warsaw conference, taking place over two days, was scheduled to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.
In Iran, the country’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said the Warsaw conference would not change anything.
“The Warsaw conference is dead on arrival,” he told reporters Wednesday. “It is another attempt by the United States to pursue an obsession with Iran that is not well-founded.”