Washington’s Counterproductive 4H Fixation in the Middle East

by Eldar Mamedov

As the Trump administration projects uncertainty about its plans concerning the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, it has redoubled pressure on its European allies to push back against Iran on unrelated issues, such as Iran´s “destabilizing regional activities.” The thinking in Washington seems to be that the Europeans are so desperate to keep America committed to the JCPOA that they would go a long way toward acquiescing to US demands on those other issues. This, however, is wishful thinking.

True, the Europeans share some American concerns on Iran, particularly its unrelenting support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and its unacceptable rhetoric on Israel. However, unlike the Trump administration, the EU did not embrace wholesale the Saudi-Israeli view of Iran as the main source of all the troubles in the region. The EU position, as defined in its Global Strategy, says that it “will pursue balanced engagement” with Iran and its Persian Gulf rivals, such as Saudi Arabia, on regional conflicts and counter-terrorism, “seeking to prevent contagion of existing crises and foster the space for cooperation and diplomacy.”

Even if the EU were eager to deliver on American exhortations to “push back” against Iran regionally, it is not entirely obvious how it could do so without imperiling its own interests.

When the US talks about Iran´s “proxies” sowing mischief in the Middle East, it usually refers to the quadruple H of malefactors: Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, Hamas in the Palestinian territories, Hashd al-Shaabi in Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen—all agents and enforcers of a new “empire” Iran is supposedly building.

Of these, Hezbollah is by far the most formidable due to its power in Lebanon and the battleground experience it gained in Syria. Washington has demanded that the EU put Hezbollah in its entirety on the EU list of terrorist organizations. But Washington fails to understand that the EU sees Hezbollah primarily in terms of Lebanon, not Iran.

Brussels blacklisted Hezbollah’s military wing for its alleged role in the killing of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria in 2012 (although the Bulgarian authorities never conclusively confirmed Hezbollah´s involvement and some Brussels insiders believe that this decision was mostly due to Hezbollah´s role in Syria). The decision, however, was accompanied by a political declaration that it “will not prevent the continuation of dialogue with all political parties in Lebanon,” in a clear reference to Hezbollah´s political wing. This principle is equally enshrined in the EU-Lebanon Association Agreement concluded in November 2016.

Given Hezbollah’s power in Lebanon, it is impossible for the EU to develop a credible policy toward that country by excluding the Shiite organization. Fostering political stability in this fragile nation has always been a top priority for the EU, in part to facilitate the integration of the two million Syrian refugees who could otherwise migrate to Europe. It´s hard to imagine that after spending considerable diplomatic effort trying to bring the pro-Western, pro-Saudi “March 14” coalition and the Hezbollah-dominated “March 8” towards some kind of mutual accommodation, the EU would designate Hezbollah a terrorist entity now, when a deal on power-sharing has been reached and is working.

Another reason for the EU to tread carefully is the deployment of the United Nations peacekeeping force known as UNIFIL along the Israel-Lebanese border since the war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006. As many as 41 European countries have contributed their soldiers to this mission. This peacekeeping mission could not have been effective in ensuring stability on the Lebanese-Israeli border without at least Hezbollah’s tacit cooperation, and it´s in the EU interests to keep it that way.

At the end of August, however, the US pushed the UN Security Council to adopt a more aggressive mandate for UNIFIL, citing alleged Iranian military build-up along the Israeli-Lebanese border. However, the pro-Western and Saudi-backed Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri dismissed these allegations. In the end, thanks to French opposition at the UNSC to any changes in the mandate, a compromise was agreed that would “increase the visibility” of the UNIFIL but in ways that won´t infringe on Lebanese sovereignty. France´s role in resisting a more intrusive mandate for the mission is surely relevant, as Paris also happens to be an outspoken critic of Iran’s regional activities.

The same logic of de-coupling local crises from an overarching narrative of Iranian expansion applies to other H’s. Hamas, for example, is not an Iranian proxy that some American hardliners believe it to be. In fact, as a Sunni fundamentalist movement it parted ways with Tehran, albeit temporarily it seems, over the war in Syria. The continued relevance of Hamas has much more to do with the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process than with any support Iran might offer the group.

In Iraq, Hashd al-Shaabi, known in the West as the Popular Mobilization Forces, is increasingly depicted as Iran´s tool to control the country. Ben Hubbard´s long read in The New York Times illustrates this mindset. Astonishingly, Hubbard fails to mention that Hashd and the US actually work together in Iraq to defeat the so-called Islamic State (ISIS or IS). Following the liberation of Mosul, the EU is considering sending an advisory military mission to Iraq, at the request of the Iraqi government. Such a mission would certainly not include fighting Hashd. Indeed, doing so or pressuring Baghdad to crack down on forces that were decisive in the defeat of IS would be a bizarre thing for the EU to do.

Finally, according to the sources in the US Congress, new sanctions are being prepared against the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Since the Houthis are allegedly fighting on behalf of Iran, this step is framed as part of a broader pushback against Iran. However, the Houthis’ links to Iran are overstated; their grievances have local roots. From the EU perspective, the main threat in Yemen are not the Houthis but IS and al-Qaeda, which have been able to capitalize on the war and the Saudi-backed official Yemeni government´s dereliction of its responsibility to fight these groups. Far from blaming only Houthis and/or Iran for the current instability in Yemen, the EU tries to work with all parties to reach a cessation of hostilities and start political negotiations.

So, even if the EU is opposed to certain Iranian policies in the Middle East, its own approach to the regional crises is fundamentally different from the Trump administration’s. What weakens the American case further is the perception that Washington is simply looking for ways to isolate Iran, regardless of the merits of the case. Disparaging statements against the JCPOA only reinforce that perception. Even in the optimistic case of Trump recertifying Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA in October, he may still refuse doing so further down the road. Given this sheer lack of trust in his judgement, there is no incentive for the EU to change its Middle Eastern policies to its own detriment, when it cannot even be confident that Trump won´t withdraw from the JCPOA anyway.

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament. Photo: UNIFIL (Wikimedia Commons)

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.