The tiny Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain has agreed to host an international summit this fall on regional maritime and aviation threats posed by Iran, whose military forces the U.S. blame for a wave of recent attacks on commercial oil tankers and the downing of an American surveillance drone.
Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al Khalifa and U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook announced the summit in Washington on Wednesday, saying it will likely be held in late October and will build on a major U.S.-led Middle East conference that was attended by dozens of nations in Warsaw, Poland, in February.
“The Warsaw global conference created momentum,” the Bahraini minister said at an event hosted by the Atlantic Council. “It also showed clarity in our views regarding many matters in the region, especially when we came to talk about the threat from [Iran] … and we didn’t want to lose the momentum.”
The sheikh’s comments came amid new twists in evolving U.S.-Iran tensions that have escalated following President Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal and ramping up of U.S. sanctions against Tehran.
Separately, Iranian officials on Wednesday dismissed claims this week by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that Tehran, facing a U.S. economic squeeze, had opened the door for the first time on talks over its disputed ballistic missile programs.
Mr. Pompeo had told a Trump administration cabinet meeting Tuesday that the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions on Iran was clearly having an impact. But Iran’s state-controlled Fars News Agency reported Wednesday that said government officials “strongly dismissed the U.S. claims that the Islamic Republic’s missile program could be a topic for negotiation.”
The missile issue is tied to the Trump administration’s pursuit of negotiations that address Iranian policies that were left out of the 2015 nuclear accord — specifically Tehran’s support for proxy militias around the Middle East.
The Bahraini minister said Iran has been trying for years to topple his and other governments in the region. “The United States has always been with us trying to stop these malign activities of Iran.”
Mr. Hook said President Trump has “taken a different approach” from previous administrations to Iran’s “expansionist foreign policy.”
“At the heart of it is an Islamic republic that wants to redesign the Middle East along sectarian lines, to create a Shia corridor of power that stretches from Lebanon all the way down to Yemen,” he said.
Bahrain has emerged as a key player in the White House’s wider Middle East strategy.
While advocacy groups such as Human Rights Watch criticize Bahrain for harassment of activists and journalists since nationwide anti-government protests there in 2011, the Trump administration has sought the nation out as a destination for diplomacy.
Last month saw Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, rolled out the economic aspects of the administration’s long-awaited Israeli-Palestinian peace plan in Bahrain before a large international audience.
Mr. Hook said the upcoming maritime security meeting is expected to draw officials from the 60-plus nations that participated in the Warsaw conference in February.
Iran was not invited to Warsaw, but became a central focus of the conference after a fiery policy comments by administration officials and advisers. Israel was invited and the conference drew praise for bringing together Israeli and Arab leaders. But critics blamed the Trump administration for hijacking the proceedings by focusing so heavily on Iran.
The Bahraini minister and Mr. Hook defended the Warsaw conference Wednesday, suggesting it had paved the way for a deepening unity between Arab powers and Israel against Iran. “I’ll say one nice thing about Iran’s foreign policy,” said Mr. Hook. “It has brought Arabs and Israelis together in ways that we [hadn’t] thought possible.”
In the wake of Warsaw, said Mr. Hook, officials have “created what is called the ‘Warsaw Process.’”
“We have created working groups around it at the expert level — the assistant secretary level,” he said. “Bahrain has graciously agreed to host a workshop, a follow-on meeting on maritime security.”
The Bahraini minister described the upcoming event as “fitting” since Bahrain is home to U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.