The US vice-president, Mike Pence, has sharply rebuked Washington’s European allies over their efforts to shield their businesses from US sanctions on Iran, as transatlantic tensions over US foreign policy were laid bare at a conference in Warsaw.
A scheme the European Union has set up to facilitate trade with Iran was “an effort to break American sanctions against Iran’s murderous revolutionary regime”, Pence said during a conference on the Middle East organised by the US in the Polish capital.
“It is an ill-advised step that will only strengthen Iran, weaken the EU and create still more distance between Europe and the US,” he said.
In an unusually blunt and fiery address, Pence called on what he described as “freedom-loving nations” to stand against Iranian “evil”, and went so far as to accuse the regional power of plotting a “new Holocaust”.
The Warsaw meeting was attended by more than 60 nations, but major European powers such as Germany and France, parties to the landmark 2015 nuclear accord with Iran, refused to send their top diplomats. The US-led summit focused on Iran but also the Israeli-Palestinian issue, over which European leaders have expressed frustration at Donald Trump’s aid cuts and diplomatic attacks against Palestinians.
The US was represented in Warsaw by Pence, Mike Pompeo, Washington’s top diplomat, and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and special aide on the Middle East. The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, also attended.
The Obama administration eased US sanctions on Iran under the terms of the nuclear deal, but Trump reimposed them when he withdrew the US from the agreement last year.
“You can’t achieve stability in the Middle East without confronting Iran. It’s just not possible,” Pompeo told reporters after his formal opening statement. “There are malign influences in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq … The three H’s: the Houthis, Hamas and Hezbollah, these are real threats,” he said, referring to groups Iran supports.
Netanyahu had earlier withdrawn a claim on his Twitter account, said to be the result of a mistranslation, that he was in Warsaw to discuss war with Iran.
Pence praised other nations for complying with US sanctions by reducing Iranian oil imports, but said the Europeans fell short. “Sadly, some of our leading European partners have not been nearly as cooperative,” Pence said. “In fact, they have led the effort to create mechanisms to break up our sanctions.”
Pence then called for Europe to abandon the nuclear agreement altogether, making explicit a demand that Trump administration officials had previously only hinted at.
European diplomats at the conference rejected Pence’s accusations. “We strongly disagree,” a diplomat from a major European power told Reuters.
Netanyahu described the opening dinner at which he sat alongside senior officials from Arab Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, as a “historical turning point”. Many Arab states do not recognise Israel but they have been driven together by their common fear of Iran.
It remains to be seen how far the new alliance can extend to a combined approach to the Palestinian issue. It is expected Kushner will discuss his peace plan with Arab leaders in private as well as at a public session on the sidelines of the summit.
Netanyahu has argued that the Arab world is open to normalised economic ties with Israel that are not dependent on a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Pompeo’s call in his opening speech for a new era of cooperation in the Middle East will be viewed with scepticism by EU leaders, who feel they were not consulted on the US decision to pull out of the Iran deal, or the planned withdrawal of 2,000 US troops from Syria.
In a sign of transatlantic division, Niels Annen, a German minister of state for foreign affairs, said he was sceptical that the conference could deliver results on Iran. “I am hoping for constructive signals but nobody here has the expectation that this conference will solve problems,” he told reporters.
The Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, described the Warsaw conference as “dead on arrival” and another attempt by the US to pursue an unfounded obsession with Iran.
A former US ambassador to Sweden, Azita Raji, also dismissed the event, saying “conducting a lacklustre and rambling conference on the Middle East shows that it is amateur hour at the White House and is ultimately another blow to US prestige and leadership”.
The Warsaw conference came as the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, increasingly seen as a key player in the Middle East, hosted his Iranian and Turkish counterparts to discuss a final settlement in the Syrian civil war, including the presence of large numbers of Islamist fighters in Idlib province.
The three countries, particularly Turkey and Iran, do not agree on the final settlement in Syria, but have been uneasily cooperating to find a solution that does not betray their interests.
Iran wants Turkey to agree that Syrian forces should be deployed along the border with Turkey, but there has also been a separate US discussion of an international force to assuage Kurdish fears of Turkish invasion once US forces depart.
The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said on Wednesday that the leaders would also discuss forming a special committee tasked with drawing up a new postwar constitution for Syria. The composition of the committee, including the role of civil society, has been in dispute for more than a year.