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US convening international summit next month to counter Iran: Pompeo

US hopes meetings will help build 'global coalition' opposed to Iran policies in region, Secretary of State Pompeo says
Pompeo landed in Bahrain on Friday as part of eight-day tour of region (Reuters)

Mike Pompeo announced plans to host an international summit to counter Iran's influence in the Middle East, as US President Donald Trump's administration continues to seek to isolate Tehran through diplomatic and economic means.

The US secretary of state told Fox News on Friday that the meetings, set for 13-14 February, aim to "build out the global coalition" opposed to Iranian policies in the region.

He said representatives from dozens of countries - "from Asia, from Africa, from Western Hemisphere countries, Europe too, [and] the Middle East of course" - will attend the summit, which Fox News reported will be held in Poland.

"Countries will all come together to focus on Middle East stability and peace and freedom and security here in this region, and that includes an important element of making sure that Iran is not a destabilising influence. It’ll be a big ministerial. It’ll be an important part of our coalition-building effort," Pompeo said.

His comments come on the heels of a widely criticised speech on Thursday in Cairo, where Pompeo sought to defend the Trump administration's decision to pull US troops out of Syria.

Seemingly contradicting his boss, who last week said Iran could do what it wants in the war-torn country, Pompeo vowed to "expel every last Iranian boot" from Syria.

On Friday afternoon, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif slammed the proposed conference, describing it as a "desperate anti-Iran circus".

"Reminder to host/participants of anti-Iran conference: those who attended last US anti-Iran show are either dead, disgraced, or marginalized. And Iran is stronger than ever," Zarif wrote on Twitter.

His tweet included a picture from a 1996 summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, showing then US President Bill Clinton surrounded by several former world leaders, including Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

Zarif then criticised Poland, the proposed host of the summit, using a reference to World War II: "Polish Govt can't wash the shame: while Iran saved Poles in WWII, it now hosts desperate anti-Iran circus," he wrote.

War of words

Appearing tough on Tehran has been a linchpin of the Trump administration's Middle East policy, as the US president has sought to bolster Washington's support for Israel and countries in the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, that are hostile to Iran.

In May, Trump announced the US would pull out of an agreement that seeks to curb Iran's nuclear programme in exchange for a lifting of international sanctions, pitting Washington against some of its closest European allies, who remain committed to the deal.

Then, in late 2018, the US reimposed economic sanctions on Iran, including on the country's critical oil sector.

US and Iranian officials have been engaged in a war of words over the last several months amid concerns in Washington over Iranian missile tests and anger in Tehran at US efforts to persuade the United Nations to sanction the Iranian government for alleged breaches of the nuclear deal.

On Thursday, Zarif also mocked Pompeo's assertion in Cairo that "when America retreats, chaos follows".

"Whenever/wherever US interferes, chaos, repression & resentment follow," Zarif wrote on Twitter.

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On Friday, Iran's foreign ministry spokesman Basem Qasemi defended the country's record on regional issues, including what he described as efforts "to restore stability and peace" in countries including Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

“Iran’s attitude to neighbours and regional states have always been positive, as it favours peaceful coexistence, better ties as well as collective efforts for sustainable peace and stability in the region and further promoting economic cooperation,” said Qasemi, as reported by state-run IRNA news agency.

Pompeo is expected to land in Saudi Arabia over the weekend as part of an eight-day regional tour that has already brought him to Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and Bahrain.

On Friday, he was in the Bahraini capital, Manama, where he discussed "counterterrorism, Yemen, and countering the Iranian regime’s dangerous activities" with the country's king, crown prince and foreign minister, according to a statement from the US State Department.

Countering Iran is paramount on Pompeo's agenda while he's in the region, as is encouraging unity among countries in the Gulf amid an ongoing diplomatic spat between Qatar and some of its former allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

Pompeo is also expected to discuss the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi with Saudi officials in Riyadh, but he told Fox News that won't be the primary focus of his meetings there.

"My trip ... is aimed squarely at making sure that we have partners in keeping the American people safe. These important strategic partners throughout the Gulf are central to making sure that terrorism from this region doesn’t strike in the homeland," he said.

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