US and Israeli leaders continued to push for confrontation with Iran at the Warsaw ministerial meeting on Middle East security Thursday, strongly criticizing Europe as they did so.
Vice President Mike Pence cast Iran as the central driver of all regional instability as he addressed the 62 countries gathered in Warsaw and ripped into Europe for its refusal to leave the Iran nuclear deal and join Washington on increasing sanctions on Tehran.
“Sadly, some of our leading European partners have not been nearly as cooperative” on Iran as countries in the Gulf have been, Pence said in an address to the ministerial.
Referring to Iranian protests in 2009, the vice president said, “The world missed an opportunity last time to confront the regime, but not this time.”
‘I don’t rule anything out’
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, after a public appearance with Pence Thursday, told NBC that Iran “has to be countered and it has to be countered now.” Asked if that means regime change, Netanyahu said, “I don’t rule anything out.”
A day earlier, the Israeli leader’s office released, then softened a statement saying he had met with Gulf leaders to discuss their common interest in “war with Iran.” On Thursday, Netanyahu added his own criticism of Europe, noting that the US had pulled out of the Iran deal and added sanctions. “The Europeans should join this effort rather than try to circumvent it,” he said.
Pence’s remarks – both about Europe and advocating for an aggressive stance against Iran – are likely to become yet another irritant between the US and Europe, already at odds over the Iran nuclear deal, trade, the Paris climate agreement as well as President Donald Trump’s attacks on the European Union and NATO, his support for populists and for Britain’s exit from the EU.
Allies such as France and Germany declined to send senior officials to the ministerial, which was initially supposed to focus on Iran and then was broadened to cover Yemen, Syria and attempts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, partly in response to European objections.
‘Join with us’
Even the ministerial’s location – Poland – is potential salt in the wound.
Warsaw has pulled at the fabric of the European Union as it has pursued a series of anti-democratic steps, silencing independent media, politicizing security services and undermining the judicial system. Yet Pence and other US officials lavished praise on their Polish hosts, while the vice president used his remarks there to paint Western Europe as an isolated outlier.
“The time has come for our European partners to stand with us and the Iranian people, to stand with our allies and friends in the region,” Pence said. “The time has come for our European partners to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and join with us as we bring the economic and diplomatic pressure necessary.”
The vice president referred to a mechanism Europeans have created to ensure Iran can continue to import medicine and food, trade that is allowed under the Iran nuclear deal but has been constrained by banks’ fears of US retaliation.
“In fact, they’ve led the effort to create mechanisms to break up our sanctions,” Pence said. “They call this scheme a ‘Special Purpose Vehicle.’ We call it an effort to break American sanctions against Iran’s murderous revolutionary regime,” Pence said. “It’s an ill-advised step that will only strengthen Iran, weaken the EU, and create still more distance between Europe and the United States.”
Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz worked to stress areas of common agreement in a press appearance with Pence.
“The European Union and the United States share the same diagnosis of the situation,” Czaputowicz said. “They have a similar perspective of problems in the Middle East, and also – let’s be open – the negative role played by Iran. … However, the European Union and the United States differ in terms of modus operandi, especially via evaluation of JCPOA or Special Purpose Vehicle and their possible impacts.”
Czaputowicz said that in talks, representatives of Germany, France, and the United Kingdom had spoken about the benefits of the nuclear deal.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo backed up Pence’s aggressive stance on Iran during a press conference at the end of the summit.
Pompeo was asked about Pence’s criticism of three of the US’ closest allies – the UK, France and Germany – and what the consequences would be, given Pence’s accusation that they were trying to “break up our sanctions.”
The top US diplomat sidestepped. “Look, we make no bones about” wanting Europeans to put more pressure and sanctions on Iran. “We respect the sovereignty of every nation,” Pompeo continued. “But the United States is determined to convince all nations of the world that it is in our collective best interest to deny” Iranian leaders the money they need, Pompeo said.
Pompeo took a stab at some damage control, saying there have been “lots of places” where European countries have taken on Iran forcefully and mentioned Germany’s decision to deny landing rights to Iran’s Mahan Air.
Pompeo stressed that the Trump administration thinks Europe can do more, but there were no gestures of support for the hard-edged US stance, in particular no announcement of new European sanctions on Iran’s missile program – something the Trump administration has been pushing for months.
CNN’s Betsy Klein contributed to this report