Is Europe Choosing Iran over Saudi Arabia?

by Eldar Mamedov

On January 19, the European Parliament (EP) debated the escalating crisis between Iran and Saudi Arabia following the execution by Riyadh of Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr and the attack in response on the Saudi embassy in Tehran by angry mobs .The debate, kicked off and wrapped up by the EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, has highlighted a shift in European attitudes toward Iran and Saudi Arabia that has been taking shape for a while.

In her opening remarks, Mogherini praised the start of the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the lifting of the nuclear-related sanctions against Iran as of January 16, a process in which she and the EU3 (France, Germany, UK) played a key role. Careful not to be seen as taking sides, she condemned both the execution of al-Nimr and Iran´s failure to protect Saudi diplomatic legations in Tehran and Mashhad. At the same time, she made it clear that the EU sees the nuclear deal not as a goal in itself but as an investment in a more constructive relationship with Iran.

Indeed, the EU’s actions since the nuclear deal convey exactly such an impression. Even before the implementation day of the JCPOA, the EU established the Iran Task Force with the aim of identifying potential areas of cooperation. The EU is also exploring the possibility of opening a long-overdue delegation in Tehran. On a diplomatic level, the EU supported Iran’s participation in the Vienna peace talks on Syria, seeing it as crucial to end the civil war in that country. And on the economic front, the EU business community is actively exploring opportunities in Iran following the lifting of the sanctions.

Relations with Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, while still firmly anchored in a web of trade, financial, military, diplomatic, and security ties, have eroded over the last year. Multiple crises in the Middle East and their effects on Europe, such as a terrorist blowback and a surge in migration, have triggered an unprecedented scrutiny of Saudi foreign and domestic policies. For the first time, a real debate is emerging in the EU on its relations with the Kingdom.

Yesterday´s parliamentary debate highlighted in particular the Saudi intervention in Yemen and the European role in enabling it. Richard Howitt, the foreign affairs spokesman for the social-democrats (the second largest group in the Parliament) and the EP rapporteur on Iran, welcomed the agreement with Iran for having averted the nuclear arms race in the region but also questioned the legality of the conventional arms sales by some EU member states to Saudi Arabia. Those sales appear to be in breach of the EU common position on the arms trade, which explicitly bans them when there is a risk that these arms will be used to violate international humanitarian law. Yet this is exactly what is happening in Yemen. Another concern is that Saudi actions in Yemen, by targeting the Houthis, actually facilitated the re-emergence of al-Qaeda in that country.

The Saudi-led coalition’s intervention in Yemen already was a focus of a EP resolution in 2015. Another highly critical resolution took the Saudis to task for spreading Wahhabism worldwide and compared their rights practices to those of the Islamic State. Over the same period, the EP adopted no resolutions critical of Iran.

Even the traditionally much more cautious governments of the EU member states have joined in the criticisms of Riyadh. German Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel accused Saudi Arabia of fomenting jihadist extremism. The German intelligence service BND has published a memo about the threat posed to the Middle East by a “naive, arrogant Saudi prince” in reference to Mohammad bin Salman, the minister of defense and son of King Salman. The Paris terrorist attacks only accelerated this trend by highlighting concerns among European elites and public over support for extremist ideologies and terrorism from within the Kingdom. None of this was conceivable even a year ago.

Although the trajectory in the EU seems to favor Iran over Saudi Arabia, the fears in Riyadh that the EU is tilting toward Tehran are exaggerated. As Mogherini reminded MPs, the EU rejects the zero-sum game where one state´s gain is another´s loss. It seeks not to take sides but to help create cooperative security architecture in the Middle East, along the lines of the EU itself.

As official contacts and Track II level discussions involving academics and think-tankers show, Iran seems to be more receptive to such ideas than Saudi Arabia. There are certainly forces in Iran that act on unilateralist impulses, as exemplified by a recent unnecessary and provocative missile test. But it is Saudi Arabia where aggressive unilateralism now seems to dominate the state policy. The recent New York Times op-ed by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir, calling to confront Iran, looks as if it were taken straight from US neoconservative bullet points. One leading Saudi commentator, Jamal Khashoggi, a former media adviser to the Saudi ambassador in Washington, echoed George W. Bush by declaring that all other nations are “either with us against Iran, or against us.” Saudi actions match these words, as seen in an ill-fated attempt to establish an “Islamic anti-terror coalition” excluding Iran. Needless to say, in such a context Riyadh is hardly interested in EU ideas about cooperative security in the region.

These hard realities of Middle Eastern power politics might frustrate the EU´s even-handed approach. Even worse, some of its own member states might undermine the Union´s broader interests by pursuing their narrow agendas in the region favoring some actors over others.

Yet the twin surges in terrorism and refugees, the political implications of which threaten to unravel the very fabric of the EU, have shown the extent to which the security of the EU and Middle East is intertwined. Playing favorites among the regional powers has proved disastrous for the West. It is in the best interests of the EU, then, to help forge a more inclusive regional security environment in the Middle East, which would integrate both Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Photo: Sigmar Gabriel

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.

Eldar Mamedov

Eldar Mamedov has degrees from the University of Latvia and the Diplomatic School in Madrid, Spain. He has worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia and as a diplomat in Latvian embassies in Washington D.C. and Madrid. Since 2007, Mamedov has served as a political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament (EP) and is in charge of the EP delegations for inter-parliamentary relations with Iran, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, and Mashreq.


One Comment

  1. The European campaign against Saudi Arabia is making the kingdom more unwilling to make compromises. It is the nature of the Saudi rulers not to openly bow to pressure.
    Saudi Arabia is using its money to undercut all possibility of peace in the middle east as a situation of war plays in its favor. The West is increasingly worried about refugees and terrorism that are destabilizing them and that’s exactly what the Saudis want to achieve by encouraging Islamist rebels to create a mess in the neighboring countries.
    What the kingdom dreads is a huge terrorist attack inside the country. While they will accuse Iran for it, it will send tremor in the country. By playing with fire, this is well what could happen.

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