Israeli PM hopes 'common interest' of Iran brings warmer ties with Arab states

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent out a rallying cry to Arab nations at a U.S.-sponsored conference in Poland, saying he planned to focus on the "common interest of combating Iran."

Iran the main focus at U.S.-run Middle East conference in Poland

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, said the 'common interest of combatting Iran' should be the focus of a U.S.-sponsored Middle East conference in Poland. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent out a rallying cry to Arab nations at a U.S.-sponsored Middle East conference in Poland on Wednesday, saying he planned to focus on the "common interest of combating Iran."

​Foreign ministers and other officials from more than 60 countries were gathering for the conference in Warsaw, which starts Wednesday evening and whose agenda includes Iran, conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Russia and China aren't participating, and the Palestinians, who have called for the meeting to be boycotted, will also be absent. Iran, which is this week celebrating the 40th anniversary of its Islamic Revolution, denounced the meeting as a "circus" aimed at "demonizing" it.

Netanyahu — who has been trying to play up his diplomatic gains ahead of Israel's April election — has frequently hinted at warmer ties with Gulf Arab states.

"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, a senior Omani official whose Gulf state hosted the Israeli leader in October.

Oman does not formally recognize Israel. Nor do Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which also sent envoys to Warsaw and which share Israel's concerns about Iran's nuclear program and involvement in several regional flashpoints.

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."

Netanyahu considers Iran to be Israel's greatest threat, citing its calls for Israel's destruction, its nuclear program and support for militant groups across the region. Israel has been active in recent months attacking Iranian targets in neighbouring Syria.

U.S. says Iran not behaving 'like a normal country'

A photo-op with Netanyahu and senior figures from Arab countries in Warsaw would be a win for Washington as it seeks to ratchet up pressure against Tehran. The Iranians say it is U.S.-aligned forces in the region, and not they, who are belligerent.

Leading European countries Germany and France opted not to send their foreign ministers over concerns the meeting could highlight big-power tensions over Washington's decision last year to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and re-impose sanctions against Tehran.

Vice-President Mike Pence is leading the U.S. delegation, accompanied by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and White House advisor Jared Kushner.

"We're trying to expand the number of nations who are engaged and have a stake in the future of a peaceful and prosperous Middle East," Brian Hook, the State Department's special representative for Iran, told Reuters.

Participants, including U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Polish President Andrzej Duda and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, pose for a group photo ahead of the two-day conference's opening. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Arab nations and Israel faced a common threat of Iranian regional aggression and Washington was working closely with these nations to counter this, he said.

"Iran isn't behaving like a normal country. They have a very expansionist foreign policy and that destabilizes other countries," said Hook when asked whether the absence of Germany and France's top diplomats at the meeting mattered.

EU policy chief Federica Mogherini, a key player in the Iran nuclear deal, will also not attend the two-day conference due to scheduling issues, an EU official said, although Pompeo will travel to Brussels on Friday to meet with her.

Questioning the conference's value

Analysts and former officials associated with the Obama administration that forged the nuclear deal as a signature foreign policy achievement questioned the value of the conference, particularly the signs of disunity it will present.

"The result of this conference ideally would be a demonstration of Iranian isolation and unity amongst American allies in Europe and the Middle East," said William Wechsler, senior adviser for Middle East programs at the Atlantic Council in Washington.

"It's another example of what we've seen of countries in Europe demonstrating — sometimes subtly and sometimes not — their differences with the American administration," he said. "If at the end of the day it looks like America is being isolated from its partners, then it's not as successful as you want it to be."

And Ned Price, President Barack Obama's former national security spokesman, said European nations downgraded their delegations because they believed the Trump administration was going to use the summit as an "anti-Iran pep rally."

"Time and again, this administration had found itself drunk on its own Kool-Aid, isolated from our friends, and belatedly forced to scramble to save face," Price said, adding that not a single country in the EU endorsed Trump's pullout from the Iran nuclear deal.

The Trump administration has repeatedly denied allegations that it is seeking regime change in Iran. And yet, mixed messages continue to come from Washington.

Earlier this week, Trump's national security adviser John Bolton released a short video on the anniversary of the Iranian revolution in which he called Iran "the central banker of international terrorism" and accused it of pursuing nuclear weapons and missiles to deliver them.

With files from Reuters