by Eldar Mamedov
In 2010, when Iran’s then-minister of foreign affairs Manouchehr Mottaki visited the European Parliament in Brussels, he was greeted by protests from MPs. Some of them, known for their close links with the exiled Iranian dissident group Mojaheddeen-e Khalk (MEK), carried the picture of Neda Soltan, a young Iranian woman killed during the protests following the fraudulent presidential elections of 2009. They also tried to block the minister from entering the meeting room and even briefly scuffled with security guards.
The contrast with a visit of a delegation from the Iranian Majles to Brussels on May 6-7 could not be greater. Sure enough, the MEK tried to derail the visit by lobbying the MPs to adopt a resolution on capital punishment in Iran, which would have almost certainly led to the cancellation of the visit. When that plan failed, they called on Euro MPs to boycott the delegation.
In the end, however, the five member-strong delegation led by the leader of the “principlist” faction of the Majles Kazem Jalali did make it to Brussels, in the first such parliamentary visit in seven years. Apart from holding sessions with their counterparts from the EP delegation for relations with Iran, Majles members were received by the President of the EP Martin Schultz (a German Social Democrat) and the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee Elmar Brok (a German Christian Democrat).
A growing realization of the converging interests between the EU and Iran accounts for this dramatic change. This time, the discussions in Brussels were not so much focused on traditional European concerns, such as Iran´s nuclear program and human rights, as on the situation in the Middle East. In a scenario of rapidly disintegrating states and spreading terrorist threats, European officials are discovering that Iran is among the most stable and predictable state actors in the region.
In fact, privately many of them are uneasy, to say the least, with Saudi Arabia’s newfound regional efforts to consolidate a Sunni front against the “Iranian threat.” In a curious twist, it is Saudi Arabia, and not Iran, that is increasingly emerging as a revolutionary Middle Eastern power. Its refusal to take up a seat in the UN Security Council in 2013, alleging the structure´s inability to take action against Syria´s president Bashar Assad and confront Iran, was already a harbinger. Now, many in Brussels view with apprehension the departure of the cautious King Abdullah and a newly assertive policy of rolling back ” Iranian influence” in Yemen and Syria.
The EU´s foreign policy supremo Federica Mogherini definitely doesn´t share the Saudi narrative of Iran being the root of all tumult in the Middle East. In fact, she sees the nuclear deal with Iran as a gate opener for engaging Iran on the regional issues, including in Syria and Yemen, which is an anathema to Saudis. Officials from the Mogherini-led European External Action Service (EEAS) now discuss the possibility of a regional dialogue with Iran, which is a sharp departure from her predecessor Catherine Ashton, who approached Iran as an exclusively nuclear problem.
The Problem with the Gulf States
A major obstacle to this re-alignment is, of course, the position of some EU member states. Shortly before the group of Iranian MPs arrived in Brussels, French President Francois Hollande visited Saudi Arabia and Qatar, two major buyers of the French arms. As the French-Saudi joint declaration makes it clear, both countries are looking to consolidate their cooperation, notably in the defence sphere. This explains why France is also the toughest of the P5+1 group of powers in nuclear negotiations with Iran, its positions closest to the Saudis and Israelis. The French government, of course, is looking for ways to boost the country´s struggling economy. But massive arms sales to the Gulf monarchies may carry a considerable strategic cost, namely in the fight against the so-called Islamic State (IS or ISIS) and al-Qaeda.
Iranian MPs are upset that no major steps have been taken to combat IS and al-Qaeda terrorism. There is some truth to these claims.
Although Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies are formally part of the anti-ISIS coalition, their real actions seem to go in an opposite direction. Operation “Decisive Storm” in Yemen contrasts sharply with Saudi Arabia´s and its allies´ notorious lack of enthusiasm in the fight against IS. Bombing Yemen (including with cluster munitions, which are prohibited by international law) not only leads to numerous civilian deaths but also takes the heat off al-Qaeda, enabling it to regroup and liberate dangerous terrorists from prisons. And the anti-Shiite, anti-Christian, and anti-Jewish hate campaigns emanating from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and United Arab Emirates show no sign of abating. These countries are providing pulpits for firebrand clerics and hosting “debates” on the convenience of committing genocide against Alawites (a heterodox offshoot of Shia Islam), like the one organised by al-Jazeera Arabic in Doha.
Iranian MPs also rejected the interpretation of the current strife in the Middle East as a Sunni-Shiite conflict. They pointed out that Sunnis and Shiites have co-existed peacefully for centuries and blamed Saudi Arabia for stoking the sectarian conflict in the region through its aggressive promotion and financing of Wahhabism. Supporting Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies is, in this reading, a recipe for a strategic disaster in the region.
Overall, this narrative lacks self-criticism as regards Iran´s own role in region´s woes—from its staunch support of Bashar Assad´s regime in Syria to the failure to rein in more effectively Shiite militias in Iraq, some of which have been accused of war crimes. But that does not mean that the Iranian narrative should be rejected out of hand. If the West is serious about the security of the Middle East, and its own security as well, it would be wise to use its close ties with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf regimes to confront them over their destabilizing activities, even at the cost of some lucrative arms deals.
The visit of the Iranian MPs to Brussels is another sign of changing times in the Middle East. Although a wholesale rapprochement between the EU and Iran may still be some way off, inter-parliamentary diplomacy has the potential to build trust, bridge differences, and eventually make a re-alignment possible. There is a need for more, not less, of such contacts. US Congress members would do well to join their European counterparts in a direct dialogue with Iran. The West, after all, does not have the luxury of choice in picking its interlocutors in the Middle East these days.
Photo: Kazem Jalali
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.