by Eldar Mamedov
On July 16, the European Parliament debated the “Situation in the Persian Gulf” with the European Union’s High Representative for foreign policy, Federica Mogherini. The fact that the item was among the first on the foreign policy agenda of the newly-elected assembly testifies to the concern the representatives of the European peoples feel about the escalating tensions in the region. Also, remarkably, the title of the debate referred to the “Persian Gulf” rather than simply “Gulf”, as is customary in official Euro-speak. This may seem like a trivial detail, but, in the context of a burgeoning effort to delegitimise Iran’s presence in the region—consisting, among other things, in promoting the concept of the “Arabian Gulf”—getting the title right was symbolically meaningful.
With such a broadly defined title, there was a range of choices as to how to frame the debate politically. No written resolution was adopted to wind down the debate, but it was a worthwhile exercise to get an early indication of where the new Parliament stands on Iran.
The sense one got from the discussion was one of continuity of a broadly pro-engagement line, defended by Mogherini and the EU member states. True, right-wing forces, represented by the Saudi-friendly European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), which include such parties as Poland’s national-populist Law and Order and the Mojahedeen-e Khalk (MEK)-funded Spanish extreme right Vox, sought to condemn Iran for its “illegal” nuclear program and “obstruction” of the freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf. ECR, however, was weakened after the elections—it used to be the third-largest political bloc in the EP, and now it’s only sixth. The debate, instead of centering on Iranian “nefarious activities” as the ECR would have wished, focused on EU efforts to save the 2015 nuclear agreement (Join Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) and the urgent need for regional de-escalation.
Mogherini set the tone, by framing, once again, the survival of the JCPOA as a key European security interest and an achievement of multilateral diplomacy worth preserving. She expressed concern about the latest Iranian steps to increase its stockpiles of low enriched uranium (LEU) and the level of enrichment, but stressed that these steps are reversible as long as the JCPOA can be saved. Following the Joint Commission of the JCPOA meeting on June 28 in Vienna, experts discussed ways to allow Iran to export its excess LEU and heavy water stockpiles. On INSTEX, a special trade mechanism devised to facilitate trade with Iran, Mogherini said that its first operations were already processed, and more EU member states expressed interest in joining Britain, Germany and France as its shareholders.
Mogherini fully backed the efforts of players like Iraq and Kuwait to lower regional tensions, particularly the Iraqi idea of an international conference on the U.S.-Iran conflict. Asked by a member of the European Parliament whether the EU would support regime change in Iran, she categorically ruled it out by reaffirming “respect for internal political dynamics inside the country”.
Significantly, the debate in the Parliament took place a day after the EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels, so Mogherini spoke with the authority that the backing of the 28 EU member states gives her. Focus on saving the JCPOA and regional de-escalation shows that, despite the U.S. “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, the Europeans, mostly, hold to their view that the underlying cause of recent tensions in the Persian Gulf area is not Iranian mischief, but Donald Trump’s decision to violate the JCPOA.
The overall tone of the parliamentary debate only reinforced this impression. Most MEPs, across the political spectrum, were highly critical of unilateral and extraterritorial U.S. sanctions and demanded stronger European action in defending European security and economic interests. Speaking of the region, some recalled Saudi Arabian policies in Yemen and Western arms sales to the kingdom as, at the very least, equally destabilizing as Iran’s actions. In this context, MEPs called on the EU to promote Saudi-Iranian dialogue as a prerequisite for lowering tensions.
Although the fate of the JCPOA will ultimately not be decided in the European Parliament, the debate was indicative of where the European sentiment lies on the matter. The political message was unmistakeable: the EU, both collectively and on national levels, should step up its game to save the nuclear agreement with Iran in order to avoid a war in Europe’s neighbourhood.
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the S&D Group and the European Parliament.