by Eldar Mamedov
Following the (still unexplained) September 14 strikes on two Saudi oil facilities, there is a growing perception—expressed with hope by some, dismay by others—that Europe is moving closer to the United States in its assessment of the Iranian threat. The reality, however, may be more complex.
The statement of the E3 (Britain, France and Germany), who are driving the European Union’s Iran policy, placing blame for the attacks squarely on Iran, may certainly create an impression of such a shift. The statement contains some blunt language, such as claiming that “there is no other plausible explanation for the attacks” but Iran’s hand. Although it is entirely legitimate to suggest at least some level of Iranian involvement, responsible states base their conclusions on evidence, not mere plausibility. Are implausible explanations completely out of the question, in a region with no shortage of players with arms, conflicting agendas and both will and capability to harm adversaries?
Blaming Iran may have carried more credibility had the E3 also referred, for the sake of context, to what many European diplomats privately agree is the root cause of the escalating tensions in the Persian Gulf: Donald Trump’s reckless decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear pact with Iran (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) and institute a “maximum pressure” campaign against the country instead. Such as it was, the E3 statement not only went down predictably poorly in Tehran, but also within the European External Action Service (EEAS) led by the EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, who apparently was not consulted about its content.
Some regrettably unbalanced rhetoric aside, however, saving the nuclear agreement remains the highest priority for the E3. The EU “owns” the JCPOA as one of its few foreign policy successes, and is genuinely concerned that its derailment would plunge the entire Middle East into a catastrophic conflict that would directly affect Europe’s security and wellbeing. This is the background of French President Emmanuel Macron’s efforts to secure a 15 billion euro credit line for Iran and broker an agreement between Washington and Tehran.
Europe is often criticized for issuing many declarations of support for the JCPOA (the latest E3 statement is another example), but failing to act on them in order to deliver the economic dividends Iran secured as part of the deal. Macron’s mediation attempts look in this context as being too little, and coming too late. This criticism may be understandable, but it is not entirely fair. First, in a context when the United States can no longer be relied upon to defend the international rules-based order, the EU becomes the main repository of the liberal values that sustain it. Seen from this viewpoint, statements reaffirming the continued validity of international law, of which the JCPOA forms part as endorsed by a UN Security Council resolution, acquire higher value than they would otherwise have.
Second, EU efforts to protect its companies from the extra-territorial reach of U.S. sanctions and enact INSTEX, a special trade mechanism with Iran, have been hampered not by a lack of will, but by the fragmentation inherent in EU external action. While countries like China, and increasingly the United States, align their economic relations with broader set of foreign and security policy goals, the EU is only learning to do so. It wants to save the JCPOA, but it is economically so intertwined with the U.S. that it becomes vulnerable to the U.S. efforts to impose its will unilaterally, using and abusing the centrality of the U.S. financial system.
Aligning economic and foreign/security policies would require a genuine and profound change of mindset and in the way external relations are organized in the EU, all the while doing so in opposition to the EU’s most important strategic ally. The magnitude of the challenge should not be underestimated, and, measured against it, the EU’s performance on JCPOA was not too bad. The mere refusal to join the U.S. “maximum pressure” campaign and maintaining open channels of communication with Iran, including the invitation of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to attend the G-7 meeting in France, regardless of Washington’s sanctions against him, has undermined U.S. policies. The failure of these policies eventually contributed to the dismissal of Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton, an Iran uber-hawk, and the departure of Segal Mandelkar, the beating heart of anti-Iran sanctions at the U.S. Treasury.
Finally, Macron’s initiative to mediate between Washington and Tehran is still on track, even if the meeting between Trump and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani at the UN General Assembly in New York this September never happened. Statements by current and former French officials familiar with the dossier indicate an understanding of the need for patience and perseverance. Rouhani will not respond to this initiative positively unless the whole Iranian system is brought on board, as during the JCPOA negotiations, and that won’t happen unless Trump lifts at least some of the sanctions. Ultimately, deal or no deal depends on the calculations of actors in Washington and Tehran, not Paris or Brussels. EU has little leverage on both parties, except in attempts to mediate, and that is what France is trying to do.
Then there is also a matter of genuine strategic divergence between the EU and Iran when it comes to the situation in the Middle East. The E3 statement insists that “the time has come for [Iran] to accept negotiations on [its] ballistic missile program and regional policies”. The EU and Iranian positions on Israel and the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad are fundamentally incompatible, and here the EU finds itself aligned much closer to the U.S. That’s a long-standing EU position, so the statement of the E3 does not represent any new shift.
The EU, however, knows well that trying to force Iran to unilaterally give up its missiles or regional proxies is an obvious non-starter for Tehran. The sorry experience of the JCPOA has already made Rouhani and Zarif targets for attacks from conservatives: they are blamed for giving away Iran’s nuclear program without securing any sanctions relief. There is no political space whatsoever for any Iranian leader to make further concessions on what are regarded vital matters of national defense.
Hence, two paths are available for the EU. One is the familiar path involving pressure and sanctions, this time over issues related to Iran’s missile program and its regional proxies. Iran’s recent record suggests that such steps would invite retaliation, and could even make Europe a target. Alternatively, the EU could try to build on fresh signs of openness to talks between Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Having channels of communication open with all the players concerned, the EU would be well placed to promote regional de-escalation, starting with mutual non-subversion pledges. Ultimately, even Trump, faced with a fight for his own political survival, might find it expedient to come around the European position rather than expect the EU to bow to his now irremediably failed “maximum pressure” campaign.
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the S&D Group and the European Parliament.