Recently, the Polish government agreed to host a gathering in Warsaw on the Middle East that was held the day before the Munich Security Conference, which typically brings together all the sides of major conflicts in the world; however, the Polish conference would be exclusively focused on an anti-Iranian agenda and based on the current narratives espoused by the Trump administration and Israel.
The conference was fiercely criticised by Iran and its allies but also by most higher-ranking European officials who choose not to attend the event. By taking this gamble, Warsaw apparently hoped to strengthen its security relations with the United States and to improve relations with Israel, which have been strained since last year in response to a historical dispute.
It appears that Warsaw’s gamble did not pay off, instead the conference served to expand the list of states with which Poland has problematic relations.
The European Union shunned the conference while using the event to simultaneously confirm the member states’ perception of Poland as America’s Trojan horse.
At the same time, the US rejected Warsaw’s pleas for setting up America’s permanent military base in Poland. To top it off, Warsaw has once again had a fallout with Israel, whose Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu re-opened bilateral historical wounds during his visit to Poland.
Failures of Communication
Poland has never been an important actor in the Middle East, and until recently, it had a reputation of being fairly balanced. Whilst the post-1989 relations with Israel have improved, the historical legacy of closer relations with the Arab states has remained intact to some extent.
Poland also had decent relations with Iran, better than most Europeans nations in fact.
Therefore, there could have been a potential for Poland to play the role of a neutral facilitator and even a peacemaker.
Unfortunately, the recent event has had the opposite effect mainly because of the way the conference was conceived and communicated.
Unusually, the conference was not introduced to the broader public by the host nation – meaning Poland – but by the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo via an interview with Fox News on the 19th of January 2019. In his interview, Pompeo highlighted the dangers posed by Iran to world peace, in general, and the Middle East, specifically.
Consequently, the conference was immediately received as a US and Israeli initiative directed against Iran. The Iranians reacted angrily, with the Foreign Minister Javad Zarif publishing a tweet in which he accused the Poles of ingratitude for holding an anti-Iranian event (during WWII Iran accepted thousands of Polish refugees and hosted the Polish army) threatening retribution.
The Arab and Iran-friendly states had mixed responses to the initiative. The anti-Iranian Gulf States, Egypt and Morocco endorsed it whilst Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority boycotted it. The event was also boycotted by Turkey and Russia, with Moscow organising a counter-event with Iran in Sochi on the same day.
Warsaw tried to change the narrative about the summit and portrayed it as a broader discussion on the Middle East peace process, Yemen and terrorism evidently playing down the Iranian card.
Deputy Minister Lang even went to Tehran to mollify the Iranians. All of this was to no avail, as the facts spoke for themselves and Warsaw’s inexperience with strategic communication was most apparent.
The Iranians would not be mollified with nice words of co-operation since they were not invited to the meeting in Poland. Warsaw’s attempts to present the conference as a broader – not anti-Iran – project rang hollow when upon touching the ground in Warsaw, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu fired a tweet (later deleted) in which he claimed that the reason for the summit is to prepare Arabs and Israelis for “a war with Iran”.
The opening speeches of US Secretary Pompeo and Vice-President Mike Pompeo also were focused on attacking Iran with other Middle Eastern issues hardly mentioned at all.
Failure with Washington
The US has been Warsaw’s closest security partner since the end of the Cold War, and this has been a matter of domestic consensus in Poland. But the current Polish government has sought to bring this relationship to a new level of familiarity.
This, in no small part, is a result of Warsaw’s isolation in the European Union, which the Polish government is trying to offset by strengthening relations with Washington. In turn, the Trump administration was rather receptive of the flattering that came from Warsaw, which stood in contrast to the much cooler attitudes from other European capitals.
Since the autumn of 2015, Poland has been led by the conservative-populist Law and Justice party; repeatedly, this government has found itself in conflict with the European Union over its alleged violation to the rule of law, specifically the independence of judiciary.
The European Commission opened a procedure against Warsaw that may in theory (not in practice) lead to the suspension of voting rights for Poland in the European Union.
Warsaw has also been criticised by its European partners for limiting freedom of speech, imposing direct control over the public media and even fining private media that have broadcast content critical of government.
Freedom House, an American think tank measuring the standards of freedom across the globe, has consistently ruled that democracy has been deteriorating in Poland since 2015. Yet, the administration of Donald Trump chose to ignore this.
The new leadership at the US State Department has prioritised a strategic security-focused rationale over the value-based approach towards allies in Central Europe, including Poland and Hungary.
Warsaw has been grateful for Washington’s attention and is keen to secure a more significant American military presence. Warsaw pursued various means to attract larger American support including the offer to pay $2 billion for an US military base, sweetening the offer by suggesting to name it Fort Trump.
Hence, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that Poland will be hosting the Middle Eastern conference, Warsaw was immediately inclined to agree, trying to appear as the co-initiator of the event.
As hinted by the foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz, Poland could expect a security payback from the US.
Before the conference officially started, a bilateral Polish-American event took place in Powidz, near Poznan, where some US troops have been rotated in the framework of NATO’s Advance Presence.
At the event, Defence Minister Blaszczak presented new Himars rockets that were purchased from the US and Poland’s President Andrzej Duda spoke about the plans to buy much more US military equipment in the coming years.
US Vice-President Mike Pence praised the Poles for being steadfast allies and for their intention to buy more US military hardware. What the Poles expected, however, was a commitment from the US to invest in Poland’s security and set up a permanent base on its territory.
As the Middle Eastern conference unfolded, it became clear that no such plans existed on the side of the US. In fact, in his interview with the Polish TV channel – Polsat News – Pompeo made it clear that it will take an “awfully long time” before such plans would be discussed.
In addition, responding to the pressure from US-based Jewish organisations, Pompeo chose to publicly criticise the Poles for failing to address restitution claims concerning former Jewish properties in the pre-war Poland.
Failure with Israel
Despite being well-disposed towards the current right-wing Likud government, Warsaw has had strained relations with Israel since last year when it passed legislation that criminalised any publication that asserts a stance about Poland’s co-responsibility for the Holocaust.
After responding to pressure from the US, Israel and the international community, Warsaw pulled back and amended the law cancelling the provision that allowed criminalisation of such research. However, the damage was done, and the argument about Poland’s alleged anti-Semitism has since continued to re-vibrate around Israel where it has become a matter of domestic politics.
Still, both Warsaw and Tel Aviv have been members of the same illiberal and pro-Trump camp. So when an opportunity emerged, which looked like a chance to repair relations with Tel Aviv by hosting a conference that promoted Israel’s anti-Iran narrative, Warsaw did not hesitate.
It was expected in Warsaw that such a gesture and risk-taking would be rewarded and that the current government would be praised both in Israel and the US. This did not happen.
After arriving in Warsaw and pronouncing his warmongering statements against Iran, the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu declared that the Poles were co-operating with the Germans during the Holocaust.
Later, Netanyahu sought to clarify the statement by adding that he didn’t mean Poland but individual Poles but, again, the damage was already done. Moreover, the acting Foreign Minister Israel Katz later on stated that the Poles have been genetically inclined to anti-Semitism.
These Israeli statements produced eventually a severe bilateral crisis with Poland cancelling its participation in the Visegrad summit, which was meant to be held in Jerusalem. As a result, the entire summit was cancelled and the bitter feelings in both countries have continued to rise.
Poland’s Middle Eastern adventure gave it no rewards and has produced heavy loses.
Relations with Iran and its allies are now hostile, and Warsaw can forget about the lucrative energy and investment contract it hoped to achieve with Tehran. In the EU, in addition to the label of rule of law violator, Poland will also be known as an unreliable member state. However, Warsaw did agree to the nuclear agreement with Iran, and it continues its participation in it despite America’s withdrawal from the deal. Yet, at the same time, Warsaw hosts a US-Israel led conversation that is meant to persuade the Europeans to leave the deal.
For taking this risk, the Israelis showed no gratitude to Warsaw but only renewed historical allegations. The Americans ran the show, presented their case, signed defence contracts with Poland and promised absolutely nothing.
The event will go down in the history of Polish diplomacy as the model case of ill-conceived initiatives.
This article is part of the #DemocraCE project organised by Visegrad/Insight.