Europeans' approach to Iran between fears, division and impotence

The European side fears an explosion of risks with the situation with Iran and the Gulf, with energy security and Europe's strategic security being threatened.
Monday 01/07/2019
In this June 2019 photo, acting Defense Secretary Mark Esper arrives at the Pentagon in Washington. Esper is heading to Europe to try to convince wary NATO allies to work with the Trump administration on Iran sanctions and security in the Middle East. (AP
In this June 2019 photo, acting Defense Secretary Mark Esper arrives at the Pentagon in Washington. Esper is heading to Europe to try to convince wary NATO allies to work with the Trump administration on Iran sanctions and security in the Middle East. (AP

Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has escalated tensions with Washington, which could lead to a limited US response or a broader confrontation. There is no doubt that the Iranian bet on American confusion is because  the other big players are largely divided, with some showing understanding towards Iran’s position -- the European side -- and others showing direct or indirect support towards it -- China and Russia.

It is in this context that the cautious and ineffective European approach to the power struggle between Washington and Tehran has emerged. The concerned European powers have been wedged between the American hammer and the Iranian anvil since Washington's unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear agreement. It is not certain that European diplomacy will succeed during the escalation episode because it has not succeeded since May 2018 and after several international and regional mediation attempts.

However, Europe's persistence in trying to diffuse the escalation between Washington and Tehran cannot hide its failure to find a diplomatic recipe for breaking the prevailing deadlock that leaves the scene open to all possibilities.

Far from Washington's calculations and Beijing's and Moscow’s bets, Europe's agenda seems very different because the ramifications of wars in the Middle East and the Gulf are spreading into the old continent, especially regarding terrorism and refugees. This is why Europe stuck to the nuclear agreement -- it believed that Iran would return to being a normal state like other countries and, thus, Europe’s obsession with these two issues since the end of the 1970s would end with the deal.

Consequently, the European side fears an explosion of risks with the situation with Iran and the Gulf, with energy security and Europe's strategic security being threatened. Today, with the drums of war beating, it is clear that the old nightmare that some thought had vanished is emerging again. The European Union has not adopted a coherent policy on this issue because of its declining weight on the international scene, its lack of independence vis-a-vis Washington and its inability to develop effective policy to deal with Tehran. Iran has never responded positively to European demands about scaling down its ballistic missiles programme and its involvement in regional crises.

In the race against time since last May and after Tehran’s ultimatum to withdraw from the nuclear deal in July, Europe has multiplied its initiatives to contain the escalation but has not achieved a breakthrough that gets Tehran back to the negotiating table. A European source raised questions about escalation incidents coinciding with visits of international delegations to Iran.

Thus, the incidents in the Gulf of Oman occurred during and after visits by the German foreign minister and the Japanese prime minister. The downing of a US drone occurred when the French president’s envoy, Emmanuel Bonne, was in Tehran. An Iranian source said the Iranian regime was pushing things to the extreme by blackmailing the Europeans on enriching uranium and by increasing the pace of war messages to Washington and its allies in the region.

In addition to the nuclear lever, Iran is using the refugee and drugs cards to exert pressure on Europe. Iranian President Hassan Rohani was not above using veiled threats to intimidate Europe as well as enticement by inviting it to protect its interests or so he says. However, European circles following the Iranian issue also point out the dangers of creating a power vacuum in Iran and of the collapse of the state if the situation explodes.

Ironically, these fears did not cross the minds of some when the Europeans went after the former Libyan regime. There are those who conveniently forget the role of the historical factor in ensuring the permanence of the Iranian state and the ability of its elites to take over in case the regime collapses. European fears of probable destructive chaos and the ever-present threats of terrorism and mass migration keep growing.

The various European initiatives could not extract convincing responses from Tehran. The latter seems adamant on twisting Washington’s arm to force it to either return to the Obama administration-brokered agreement or lower the ceiling of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s conditions.

The missions of the German minister and of the French envoy in Tehran failed. Following those visits and the European Union's Federica Mogherini’s consultations in Washington, the European side is waiting for the meeting June 28 in Vienna of the committee in charge of following up on the nuclear agreement with Iran, with Russia and China attending that meeting.

In addition to the absence of European incentives to Tehran and to the European failure to activate the mechanisms of bypassing US sanctions on Iran, it is becoming increasingly clear to European diplomats that Beijing and Moscow are contributing to Iranian intransigence. The latter may be counting on the dispersal of American power and on the lack of European support for Washington and even perhaps on plunging the United States into another war in the Gulf, which could result in undermining the position of the only world superpower in favour of China's rise and Russia’s penetration of the international world order.

European diplomacy is suffering not only from its cautious approach and its multiple fears but also from the lack of a coherent vision regarding the Iranian file. We’re beginning to see splits in the European ranks with Britain siding with Washington, while the rest could not reach a consensus regarding the deterioration of the conflict between Washington and Tehran.

US President Donald Trump cancelled a retaliatory strike against Iran for downing a US drone but this does not mean that things are going to cool down. Hence, the Europeans are calling for restraint on both sides but they are not relying on a dramatic change in the course of events. However, if Iran opts for more escalation, then the margin for European manoeuvring becomes very slim and Europe will have to align itself with Washington.

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Khattar Abou Diab is a professor of geopolitical sciences at the Paris Centre for Geopolitics.