by Eldar Mamedov
In line with the EU policy of balanced engagement with Saudi Arabia and Iran, a group of senior EU lawmakers visited both Riyadh and Tehran last week, with a stopover in Kuwait. The delegation was led by the German chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the European Parliament, David McAllister (European People´s Party, centre-right).
In Saudi Arabia, the delegation met, among other dignitaries, Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeyr and Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani. In Kuwait it was received by the Crown Prince Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah. And in Iran the delegation´s interlocutors were the speaker of the parliament Ali Larijani, senior foreign policy adviser to the Supreme Leader Ali Akbar Velayati, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Iranian parliament Alaeddin Boroujerdi, and Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, former deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs and currently Larijani´s foreign policy adviser. The delegation did not meet this time with Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who was at the same time in Kuwait at the International Conference for the Reconstruction of Iraq.
The delegation discovered that Iran and Saudi Arabia share many interests and potential points of cooperation. Take Iraq, for example. After more than 25 years of non-relations, the Saudis have energetically re-engaged with Iraq. They re-opened their embassy in Baghdad and opened a consulate in Najaf, one of the holiest cities of Shia Islam. Regarding Kurdish aspirations, they support the territorial integrity and non-sectarian character of the Iraqi state. They feel that they can work with current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and neither expect nor seek major upheavals in Iraqi governance after the parliamentary elections this May. Yet these are exactly the views also held by the Iranians. Both Riyadh and Tehran share an interest in stabilizing Iraq, and both have participated in the conference for the reconstruction of Iraq in Kuwait.
Other shared interests include keeping, for want of better alternatives, the current power-sharing arrangement in Lebanon after the failure of the rash Saudi attempt to change it in their favor. And they both oppose the so-called Islamic State, which, even if defeated territorially, still represents a threat to both Riyadh and Tehran, especially the former.
Points of Conflict
Despite these objective overlapping interests, however, no Saudi-Iranian rapprochement is forthcoming. The current Saudi leadership feels emboldened by its close relations with the Trump administration and shows no interest whatsoever in EU efforts to promote some sort of detente in the region. To the contrary, Riyadh tries to escalate pressure against Iran and is rather disparaging about the EU´s efforts to engage Iran. Riyadh is unhappy with the mere fact that the EU is talking to Iran and views the European Parliament´s criticisms of the Saudi conduct of war in Yemen as naive and playing into Iranian hands. Rather than heeding the EU´s calls for a regional dialogue, Saudi Arabia is more interested in leveraging its relations with influential member states, such as France and United Kingdom, to push back against Iran.
The recent protests in Iran seem to have convinced the Saudi leadership that the Iranian people have lost faith in the system and wish the downfall of the regime. This further lessens any incentives to reach out to Tehran. Instead, the foreign policy establishments in the Gulf are more likely to listen to exile groups like Mojahedeen-e Khalk (MEK), bitter foes of Tehran with no support inside the country.
One effect of the new Saudi (and Emirati) belligerence is that other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) must increasingly toe the Saudi line or else face tremendous pressure (see Qatar). This severely reduces the room for diplomatic maneuver for any GCC members traditionally considered “moderate,” such as Kuwait. The Kuwaiti offer to foster dialogue between the GCC and Iran has been shelved for now.
Iran, by contrast, does not seem to be possessed by the same zero-sum logic as Saudi Arabia. Although Iranian officials are scathingly critical of what they see as destructive Saudi policies in Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, and Lebanon, they constantly emphasize that Saudi Arabia is also instrumental in solving these crises—if nothing else, for its spoiler power.
Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has repeated Iran’s call for regional dialogue, most recently at the Munich security conference. The Saudis tend to dismiss such proposals because they believe that Zarif and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani have no power and the real decision-making lies with Ayatollah Khamenei and his hardline allies in the Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Those who never believed in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) said the same thing. Yet the lesson of this nuclear agreement is that, if the system as a whole is convinced of the benefits of negotiations, it can engage in rational bargaining and trade-offs. In any case, there is nothing to be lost by at least testing Zarif´s proposals.
The incompatible positions of Saudi Arabia and Iran—as well as the individual agendas of its own member states such as the UK and France—leave little scope for the EU to effectively mediate between the two. EU options are limited, and it has to play them smartly.
First, the EU needs to persevere in its policy of a balanced engagement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, even if this arouses discontent in Riyadh. It would be detrimental and short-sighted for the EU to squander the political capital it won by sticking to the JCPOA just because of the currently hostile alignment of Washington, Tel Aviv, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi. It would also deal a blow to European aspirations to play an independent role in world affairs. In practical terms, this means defending the JCPOA, if need be by introducing measures to protect EU-Iran trade from extraterritorial US sanctions should Trump pull out of the JCPOA. In a nutshell, the EU should keep channels of communications with Iran open, limit the damage of Trump policies, and quietly hope that in three years a more reasonable administration will emerge in Washington.
Second, the EU should explore low-key, “non-political” transnational projects in the region, for example, in the area of environment protection. The EU has a wealth of experience in managing such projects. Sand storms, for example, affect Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran. Bringing them together at least on this level would create a precedent of regional cooperation.
If EU diplomacy is limited in Saudi Arabia by fundamentally divergent strategic outlooks, it is the elite infighting in Iran that poses the greatest challenge. Even as the government of Hassan Rouhani tries to reach out to Europe, other elements of the Iranian establishment are much more lukewarm, if not hostile, to the idea of the country opening up to the West. This explains why two and half years after the conclusion of the JCPOA there is still no EU delegation in Tehran. This is counter-productive from Tehran´s perspective, since the European External Action Service and the European Commission are pro-engagement forces. Equally, the recent arrests of environmental activists, including the death of one of them in prison in suspicious circumstances, seem to be designed to undermine the Rouhani government and its international outreach. Whatever the domestic politics surrounding these events, the EU can’t maintain effective engagement if Iran doesn’t uphold the rule of law.
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament. Photo: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Saudi King Salman.