by Eldar Mamedov
When the EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini meets with her counterparts from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) at an EU-GCC ministerial meeting on July 20 in Brussels, the mood will be far from jubilant. Not only will Brexit overshadow the meeting, Great Britain being the Gulf’s key partner in the EU, but some fundamental disagreements between the EU and the GCC’s most powerful state—Saudi Arabia—will ensure that the meeting will be little more than a catalogue of good intentions.
At the root of these disagreements are conflicting policies toward Saudi Arabia’s great nemesis, Iran. From Riyadh’s perspective, the EU’s decision to terminate the nuclear-related sanctions against Iran as part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JPOA) legitimizes Tehran´s regional ambitions. Saudi Arabia sees an existential threat not only in what Iran is alleged to be doing—like “controlling four Arab capitals” and undermining others—but also in what it represents: a revolutionary, anti-western, self-reliant republic, with a predominantly Persian and Shia population, that challenges the Arab Sunni-centric conservative regional order.
Saudi Arabia sees Western, predominantly American, support for this regional order as a vital insurance against an Iran free to pursue its “hegemonic aspirations.” But the Saudis worry that America is withdrawing from the region and that Europe is either too irrelevant to fill the security void or is directly colluding with Iran against Saudi interests. Such is the case when the EU, for example, criticizes Saudi Arabia for its conduct of the war in Yemen. Saudi Arabia wants the West to address its feelings of abandonment and vulnerability by pushing Iran back into its box. When the Saudis refused to grant Mogherini meetings with King Salman and any of the crown princes during her visit to the Kingdom on May 31, they intended to send a message to the EU of how angry and frustrated they were about Brussels’ warming ties with Tehran.
Anger and frustration, however, are poor substitutes for diplomacy, and, in the long term, could damage the Saudi Kingdom.
Riyadh needs to understand that the EU decision to normalize relations with Iran is strategic. Iran can bring to bear key resources in tackling the three principal challenges that feed the populist assault on the very existence of the EU, of which Brexit was only the latest, and probably not the last, incarnation: sclerotic economic growth, terrorist threat, and chaotic migration.
What Iran Offers
On the economic front, the promise of the 80-million strong Iranian market is too strong for European businesses to ignore. Iran is the 18th largest economy in the world in terms of purchasing power parity, and the only major economy still outside the World Trade Organization (WTO). Since trade is a prerogative of the EU as a bloc, not individual member states, Brussels has signaled its intention to speed up Iran’s accession process to the WTO. Where Western governments used to discourage trade with Iran, now the ministers of foreign affairs of UK, Germany, and France, joined by Mogherini and the US Secretary of State John Kerry, encourage businesses to seize the opportunities opened by the sanctions relief.
On counter-terrorism, Iran is a useful ally against the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and al-Qaeda. In Iraq, in particular, de facto cooperation between the US and Iran has enabled Iraqi forces to make steady progress against IS in the province of Anbar. The EU has also actively supported the participation of Iran as one of the key stakeholders in the International Syria Support Group.
Iran is both a source and a transit country for illegal migration to Europe, particularly for citizens of Afghan origin. After Syria, Afghanistan is the second largest source of illegal migrants to the EU. To tackle this challenge, the EU and Iran announced a migration dialogue during Mogherini’s visit to Tehran in mid-April.
None of this means that the EU and Iran will become the best of friends or that disagreements, be it on regional security or Iran’s domestic policies, will disappear. But European security has become just too intertwined with the Middle East for the EU not to have functional relations with one of the region’s pivotal countries. It is unreasonable to expect the EU to sacrifice those for the sake of reassuring the Saudis. In fact, the new EU Global Strategy on Foreign and Security Policy, unveiled on June 25, explicitly states that the EU will pursue a balanced engagement with the Gulf and Iran on regional conflicts and counter-terrorism, “seeking to prevent the contagion of existing crises and foster the space for cooperation and diplomacy.”
From Threat to Opportunity
Rather than treating this “balanced engagement” as a threat, the Saudis should see this as an opportunity. In reality they have little other choice. The isolation of Iran is no longer a realistic option. Hillary Clinton, the presumptive next US president, may sound on Iran more hawkish than the Obama administration. But once elected, she’ll be more likely guided by pragmatism than ideology and won’t renege on the JCPOA. And even if she or Donald Trump does so, in the absence of a major Iranian provocation, of which there are no signs so far, the EU is unlikely to just play second fiddle to Americans on Iran.
The Saudis will also not benefit much from lobbying individual EU member states, such as the UK and France. Both London and Paris have close ties with Riyadh, but they are also eager to reach out to Tehran. Besides, public opinion in Europe, increasingly aware of the role the Saudi kingdom has played in promoting militant Wahhabism of the sort that today threatens European societies, makes it ever more costly for politicians to be seen as too cozy with the Saudis.
Saudi assertive unilateralism and efforts to cobble together a Sunni coalition against Iran are also failing. Riyadh’s performance in Yemen is far from awe-inducing. Big and militarily capable Sunni countries, such as Turkey, Pakistan, and Egypt, are reluctant to fight for the Saudi geopolitical agenda. Even the smaller Gulf states have their own agendas with Tehran, which are not necessarily always in line with Riyadh´s thinking. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Saudi Arabia needs to focus on internal reform, particularly on how to reconcile such aspects of the reform blueprint Vision 2030 as an emphasis on modernization, privatization, and competitiveness with the need to preserve the internal cohesion of the society. To succeed, it needs a stable and secure regional environment.
Saudi diplomats would be wise, therefore, not to indulge in the demonization of Iran. Instead, Saudi Arabia should capitalize on the EU´s emerging ties with Tehran to discuss the kind of inclusive regional security order for which the EU stands, starting with specific confidence-building measures to de-escalate tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.