Europe sides with UK over tanker row but shows no appetite for showdown with Iran
DUBAI - As US-Iran tensions escalated, so have European efforts to salvage the Iran nuclear accord, known as Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, from collapse.
European diplomacy played a pivotal role in the nuclear agreement materialising in 2015 but those efforts have been undermined by regional geopolitics and competition involving Iran.
The European position on the Iran crisis has come under increasing scrutiny since the seizure of the British-flagged Stena Impero, which remains impounded, by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the Strait of Hormuz in July.
That incident was a response by Tehran to British forces seizing the Iranian oil tanker Grace I off the coast of Gibraltar for allegedly violating EU sanctions against Damascus.
Iran has continued its targeted harassment of British commercial and military vessels in Gulf waters. Ruling out a quid pro quo exchange of the vessels, the United Kingdom reinforced its naval deployments and spearheaded efforts to form a European-led task force in the Gulf to protect freedom of navigation.
The logic to a European-led naval mission is that Tehran would be far more reluctant to harass a European coalition, given its disinclination to the “maximum pressure” approach being pursued by the United States against Iran.
While European allies have sided with the United Kingdom against Iran’s seizure of the Steno Impero — as well as any other threat from Iran to open-water navigation — the European appetite for a more direct military role is low. The Grace I was released by Gibraltarian authorities, against US advice, in what can be seen as a confidence-building measure by the European Union after Iran provided written assurances to the United Kingdom that the vessel’s cargo would not be dispatched to Syria.
Europeans remain critical more widely of Iran’s regional activities and strategy but are wary of being pulled into a standoff with little space for manoeuvre, which they see as Washington’s making. Two weeks ago, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas recharacterised the US approach to Iran as “maximum tension” rather than “maximum pressure.”
Berlin has effectively rejected calls from its British and US allies to contribute a more substantial role in the region. Far from the European-led naval mission sought by the United Kingdom coming together, Germany has decided against joining even the US-led naval task force despite a formal request from Washington.
Underlying differences between key Western powers will come as some relief to the Iranian leadership, which was facing the prospect of serious international isolation after the United States initiated a campaign of unprecedented sanctions against key officials, oil trade and nuclear activities in Iran.
France has been stepping up its efforts to get the United States and Iran to avoid further escalation and move towards some form of talks. French President Emmanuel Macron sent Emmanuel Bonne, a key adviser, to Tehran, received Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Seyed Abbas Araghchi in Paris and reportedly has had lengthy discussions with Iranian President Hassan Rohani.
US President Donald Trump criticised Macron for sending “mixed signals” to Iran and supposedly representing the United States in its talks with Iranian officials.
In an unusual rebuke, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said France spoke “with total sovereignty” and would not seek permission from others for its diplomatic efforts with Iran. The United States has been frustrated by Europe’s lack of support as it attempts to rein in Iran’s regional activities.
However, Francois Nicoullaud, a former French ambassador to Iran, said Europe wants to avoid becoming “trapped” into the standoff with Iran in the way the United Kingdom may have already, preferring to craft a uniquely European initiative. It is a sentiment echoed in Germany by Maas, who suggested Europe’s “efforts in the region must be recognisably European.”
Germany and France, Europe’s heavyweight powers, have traditionally shaped the European Union’s approach to international issues and crises. Post-WWII Germany has emphasised diplomacy and constructivism in its international role and activities, with a deep-rooted dislike of military options.
France, on the other hand, which has historically sought to preserve its independence from US primacy and which vehemently opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, has been frustrated by Washington’s strategy against Iran that has created an explosive environment.
Europe has thrown its weight behind convincing Iran to reverse its recent breaches of the Iran nuclear deal and to recommit to the accord.
In a major breakthrough two weeks ago, the EU payment system designed to enable European businesses to conduct non-dollar trade with Iran without breaking US sanctions, known as the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX), completed its first transactions.
It is unclear what strategic effect INSTEX could have, if it will be able to cater to Iranian oil exports that have been crippled by US sanctions and if it will be opened up to other countries, such as Russia and China.
INSTEX is without a chief executive after Bernd Erbel, a former German ambassador to Iran, withdrew following comments sympathising with Iran and criticising Israel.
European policymakers will be seeking to stay out of the firing line and reinforce their credibility as mediators, primarily with Iran, to the crisis but the tightrope walk this involves comes with pitfalls and the time to achieve progress is closing.