Poland is inserting itself into the Middle East’s affairs rather controversially, against the backdrop of the Central European country earning Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s praise for being the Jewish state’s closest ally in the European Union (E.U.).
By co-hosting the so-called “anti-Iran summit” with the United States next month, Poland is inserting itself into the Middle East’s affairs rather controversially, against the backdrop of the Central European country earning Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s praise for being the Jewish state’s closest ally in the European Union (E.U.). Undoubtedly, Poland’s decision to co-host this conference took many observers by surprise. Yet when seen in the context of Warsaw’s interests in working more closely with the U.S. administration of Donald Trump, the decision seems far less surprising.
From Poland’s perspective, the top strategic threat to Warsaw is not Iran. It is unquestionably Russia, which Poland looks to the U.S. to counter. From the heavily militarized Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, which shares a 144-mile border with Poland, officials in Warsaw constantly fear that Russia could stage an attack. Thus, Poland is clearly willing to strain bilateral relations with the Islamic Republic in order to secure stronger support from the U.S. administration, which Warsaw is urging to build up America’s military footprint on Polish soil.
Last year, the current government, led by President Andrzej Duda, began offering to pay the U.S. $2 billion for the establishment of a permanent American military base in Poland, which the Polish leader proposed naming “Fort Trump.” Officials in Warsaw argue that such a base is necessary to counter perceived Russian aggression. From a security standpoint, Poland has played a pivotal role along the eastern flank of NATO following the Russian annexation of Crimea almost five years ago.
Moscow’s clout in Europe is largely rooted in Russian gas sales to the continent, where Poland and ten other states (Austria, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Latvia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia) rely on Russia for over 75 percent of their gas imports.
Moscow’s clout in Europe is largely rooted in Russian gas sales to the continent, where Poland and ten other states (Austria, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Latvia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia) rely on Russia for over 75 percent of their gas imports. Warsaw’s strategies for overcoming this geopolitical vulnerability entail turning to the U.S., Qatar, and Norway for gas imports with the aim of ditching Russia as a source of Poland’s energy imports. Last year, Poland signed a 20-year liquefied natural gas (LNG) deal with the U.S., which should weaken the Kremlin’s leverage over Warsaw.
So, in the interest of securing greater support from Washington to counter Russia’s agenda in Central/Eastern Europe, co-hosting this summit seems logical in terms of advancing Warsaw’s grander geopolitical, economic, and security interests. While Poland has no particular ill will toward Iran, Warsaw’s foreign policy decision-makers have simply calculated that the support from America which they desire cannot be delivered unless Warsaw backs the administration against Tehran. Polish firms doing business in Iran left the country after the U.S. administration decided to pull Washington out of the Iranian nuclear deal—formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—in May 2018 and re-imposed sanctions on Tehran. This move highlights the Poles’ seriousness when it comes to backing Trump vis-à-vis Iran.
But Poland is taking risks that could result in Warsaw losing its ability to pursue neutral foreign policy in the Middle East, which could have negative implications that would take years for the Poles to fully realize. The Iranian-Polish relationship already has suffered since Warsaw’s decision to co-host this summit. Earlier this month, some Polish media outlets ran pieces reporting that the Iranian embassy in Warsaw stopped issuing visas to citizens of Poland.
Tehran’s officials have responded negatively by summoning Poland’s ambassador to the Islamic Republic, and Iran’s top diplomat has vowed retaliatory measures against Warsaw, without specifying what such moves would entail.
Although such stories were false, Tehran’s officials have responded negatively by summoning Poland’s ambassador to the Islamic Republic, and Iran’s top diplomat has vowed retaliatory measures against Warsaw, without specifying what such moves would entail. The Cinema Organization of Iran decided to indefinitely postpone a Polish film festival in Iran’s capital in response to next month’s conference taking place in Warsaw. Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif blasted the conference as a “desperate anti-Iran circus” and went to Twitter to remind the government in Warsaw of the thousands of Polish refugees who had received shelter in Iran during World War II.
Poland’s leadership is determined to convince Iran that this summit is not directed against the Islamic Republic but rather focused on security issues across the greater Middle East. The Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs officially stated: “The ministerial will be a forum for countries concerned about instability in the region to share their assessments and offer ideas on a better way forward. 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.”
Iran is not buying this line. Unquestionably, the fact that Iran is not invited gives Tehran good reason to interpret this summit as anti-Iranian to its core. Nonetheless, to try to ease tensions with the Islamic Republic, Poland’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Maciej Lang, arrived in Tehran on January 21 to discuss the summit with his Iranian counterpart, Abbas Araqchi. But Lang was not able to convince the Iranian officials that next month’s event could possibly be anything other than one component of the U.S. administration’s grander “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.
While in the Iranian capital, Araqchi asked Lang: “While America is after a complete demolition of the JCPOA, the sole fruit of diplomacy and dialogue in this region, how could it claim to be trying to solve the region’s problems?” Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister continued, “The Polish government should realize the true intentions of the American government by this conference and be careful about its consequences.”
In a move that is likely aimed at bringing the United Kingdom to the summit, officials in Washington are joining their Polish counterparts in emphasizing that this event should not be understood as geared toward vilifying Tehran, but instead is centered around broader security issues in the wider region. On January 22, U.S. Acting Ambassador to the U.N. Jonathan Cohen told the Security Council that the conference is “not a venue to demonize or attack Iran.” Yet in Cohen’s same address he also called for greater action against the Islamic Republic’s missile program, the conduct on the part of its main Arab proxy, the Lebanese Hezbollah, as well Tehran and Damascus’ recent “provocative act” of launching a rocket at Israel.
Poland, as a medium-size European power, is seeking greater global prestige after hosting the NATO summit in 2016.
Poland, as a medium-size European power, is seeking greater global prestige after hosting the NATO summit in 2016. Another of Poland’s quests is to further strengthen relations between Washington and Brussels, with Warsaw playing a key role in the U.S.-E.U. transatlantic partnership. Poland’s chief diplomat, Jacek Czaputowicz, emphasized that one of his country’s main objectives behind co-hosting the summit was to bring the U.S. and E.U. closer to common ground on the JCPOA.
Yet the extent to which this event can help advance Poland’s goals is unclear. If the conference is fruitful in terms of concrete changes taking place in the Middle East, Poland will likely gain something from having co-hosted it. Yet the JCPOA’s European signatories are not attending and the E.U.’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, who has sought to sustain the JCPOA, said that she will not participate. Consequently, Poland must accept the real possibility of the summit appearing more like an anti-Iranian, war-mongering event boycotted by some key NATO members. Under such circumstances, the consequences for Warsaw’s long-term interests in the Middle East would be difficult to predict, although they could potentially prove disastrous.