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Pence urges Europeans to withdraw from nuclear deal with Iran as tensions with allies grow

Vice President Mike Pence accused some "leading" European allies of trying to break U.S. sanctions against Tehran during a Feb. 14 address in Warsaw. (Video: Reuters)
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WARSAW — Vice President Pence on Thursday launched a broadside against some of the United States’ closest allies, calling on European countries to withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran and accusing them of attempting to break U.S. sanctions against “that vile regime” in Tehran.

Officials from Britain, France and Germany — all countries that negotiated and signed the 2015 landmark agreement from which President Trump withdrew the United States last year — were in the audience as Pence accused their countries of essentially siding with Washington’s enemy.

Pence threatened to impose more U.S. sanctions against Iran and praised countries that are moving to reduce their oil imports from the country “to zero.”

“But sadly, some of our leading European partners have not been nearly as cooperative,” Pence said at a Middle East conference here conceived by the Trump administration as a way to pressure Iran. “In fact, they have led the effort to create mechanisms to break up our sanctions.”

His remarks dispensed with the administration’s earlier attempts to avoid public divisions with Europe over Iran at the gathering and underscored the growing split between the United States and its allies over how to handle Tehran.

Virtually all countries in Europe support the Iran nuclear agreement as essential to their own security and oppose U.S. efforts to dismantle it.

In an attempt to preserve the pact, Germany, France and Britain recently designed a special financial mechanism to allow trade to continue between Iran and European businesses. Iran has threatened to leave the agreement if it does not have any economic benefits, and some Iranian officials have said the country may restart elements of its nuclear program that were suspended under the pact.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke on the sidelines of a Middle East peace conference in Poland on Feb. 14. (Video: Reuters)

Pence sounded incredulous and angry as he called the European banking workaround a scheme designed to “break American sanctions against Iran’s murderous revolutionary regime.”

“It’s an ill-advised step that will only strengthen Iran, weaken the E.U. and create still more distance between Europe and America,” he said. Pence warned that U.S. sanctions against Iran, already characterized as the toughest ever, “will get tougher still” if Iran does not change its behavior and foreign policy in the region.

The convening of the conference has been a cause of tension from the start, and efforts by the United States to assuage the concerns of European allies did little to improve the situation.

Major European powers were not consulted before Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the conference last month. The agenda was broadened after allies suggested that the Trump administration would end up showcasing division rather than unity over Iran, European and U.S. diplomats said. The United States and Poland also shelved tentative plans to circulate an agreement that conference attendees would all sign, two diplomats said.

But several nations nonetheless sent only lower-level officials despite the presence of Pence and Pompeo.

The European Union’s foreign minister, Federica Mogherini, did not attend, and Pompeo plans to stop in Brussels on his way home Friday to speak with her. Mogherini was one of the negotiators on the 2015 nuclear deal.

Iran was not invited to the conference and denounced it Thursday as “dead on arrival.” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has called the two-day meeting a “desperate anti-Iran circus” and has kept up a steady stream of English-language tweets mocking it.

Russia, which declined to attend, hosted what was seen as a rival meeting Thursday in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi. The presidents of Iran and Turkey, a NATO ally, joined Russian President Vladi­mir Putin there to discuss Syria.

In a subtle rebuke of Pence’s message, they issued a joint statement pledging to boost economic and commercial cooperation. The statement also said the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria announced by Trump would strengthen stability and security in Syria.

Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, briefed diplomats at the conference here on a peace plan he has been tasked with formulating to create what Trump has called the “deal of the century” between Israelis and Palestinians. But he said that the plan would not be released until after Israeli elections on April 9 and that it would be “unhelpful” to share details before then, according to a diplomat who was in the room and spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the closed-door event.

Kushner said security and opportunity are main themes of the plan, the diplomat said.

Pence later told reporters that he expected the plan to be presented this year, but he would not be more precise.

Pence met separately with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and both laid wreaths at a memorial to the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, in which Jews resisted Nazis in German-occupied Poland.

With Kushner and U.S. negotiator Jason D. Greenblatt looking on, Netanyahu was asked whether he would support the forthcoming peace plan being crafted by Kushner and Greenblatt.

“I’ll look forward to receiving the plan and will look at it once it’s presented,” Netanyahu said.

He then added, “It’s comforting to know we have such a strong ally in the United States of America.”

The Palestinian Authority boycotted the Warsaw conference and urged Arab states to do the same. Most Arab states did send representatives.

Palestinian leaders have refused to meet with Kushner or other U.S. officials for more than a year in protest of the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. They say the Trump administration is biased toward Israel and cannot broker a fair agreement. They are expected to reject the Kushner plan, perhaps sight unseen.

Pompeo and Netanyahu mentioned a pre-conference dinner Wednesday that was attended by Israeli and Arab officials. They hailed it as a historic breakthrough.

“In a room of some 60 foreign ministers, the Israeli prime minister and foreign ministers of leading Arab countries stood together and spoke with unusual force, clarity and unity against a common threat of the Iranian state,” Netanyahu told reporters.

But in a photograph taken of the entire diplomatic entourage attending the conference — more than 60 officials — Netanyahu stood next to Pompeo and spoke afterward with Pence. There appeared to be no conversation or even eye contact with diplomats from key countries in the Persian Gulf, who were positioned far from Netanyahu.

The Trump administration has sought with little success to rebut the perception that the conference is aimed at vilifying Iran, which this week marked the 40th anniversary of the Islamic revolution that overthrew the U.S.-backed shah. U.S. officials have stressed that the conference covered a range of topics. Netanyahu, however, has minced no words, telling reporters in Israel, “The focus of the conference is Iran.”

In his opening remarks, Pompeo listed a cross-section of issues that the administration usually accuses Iran of largely creating or at least heightening.

“We need action beyond today,” he said. “Syria. Yemen. Proliferation. The peace process. Terrorism. Iran. Cybersecurity. Humanitarian crises. None of the region’s challenges will solve themselves. We must work together for security in the region. No country can afford to remain on the sidelines.”

Saudi Arabia sent its top diplomat, although he seemed at pains to avoid the spotlight and ended up sitting through a pointed reference by Pence to the killing of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.

Speaking to reporters after he left the session, Pence was blunt about what the case means for the United States.

“We continue to stand firmly behind the assertion that all of those responsible need to be brought to justice. The president has been very clear on that point. We’ve been very clear with Saudi Arabia on that point and will continue to stand on that principle,” he said.

However, Saudi partnership is in the vital U.S. interest, Pence added.

“Saudi Arabia plays an important role in the new alignment that you see developing across the Arab world, including with Israel, in confronting and containing and bringing economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran,” he said.

Aaron David Miller, a former State Department official involved with several conferences dedicated to the Middle East, said that in the end, the Warsaw meeting is likely to be more show than substance.

“I don’t think you can bring 70 countries together with a loose set of objectives, called Middle East peace and security, and expect to have real, concrete results achieved,” he said. “That does not mean that the show isn’t worth something. But the bigger stage creates a bigger chance you highlight not American power and strength but American indecision and fecklessness.”