A major regional war in the Middle East has been averted, for now. President Donald Trump decided not to respond militarily to Iran launching missiles at the U.S. bases in Iraq, which itself was in response to the U.S.-executed assassination of the General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the elite Al-Quds force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRGC). Instead, Trump announced new sanctions against Iran.
There is no reason, however, to believe that this represents anything more than a pause in the rush to war rather than a beginning of a real de-escalation. No sooner the world sighed with relief, the U.S. moved the escalation ladder up in Iraq. In a sign of arrogant contempt for Iraqi sovereignty, the Trump administration refused to acknowledge the Iraqi parliament’s non-binding vote to start the process of withdrawing the U.S. military from Iraq. Furthermore, in a true gangster fashion, the U.S. threatened to freeze the Iraqi government’s oil proceeds deposited in a New-York-based bank, if it dared to insist on its sovereign right to end the presence of foreign troops on its territory.
This presence, in light of recent events leading to the assassination of Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the leader of Kataeb Hezbollah militia integrated in official Iraqi security forces, will provoke resistance from nationalist Iraqi groups, some of them backed by Iran. An early sign of this was a rocket attack at an American base on January 12, reportedly leaving four people injured. Such incidents are likely to multiply as long as the U.S. refuses to evacuate its forces from Iraq, perpetuating the cycle of violence and potentially leading up to a major conflagration.
Such a volatile, dangerous situation underlines the urgent need for the international community to step in before the entire Middle East is engulfed in a catastrophic war. One player with particular responsibility is the European Union (EU), three of which members (E3) – Britain, Germany and France – are parties to the nuclear deal with Iran, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPAO). The EU/E3 performance so far, however, is hardly encouraging.
In a flurry of statements at all levels – by the President of the European Council Charles Michel, the President of the European Commission Ursula Von der Leyen, the High Representative for foreign and security policy Josep Borrell and the E3 – European leaders called for restraint and de-escalation on all sides, and pledged to do their utmost to save the JCPOA.
Yet these declarations were not backed up by any new concrete, tangible commitments and actions. The four hours-long meeting of the ministers of foreign affairs of the 28 EU member states on January 10 failed to produce any deliverables save a “mandate” for Borrell to engage in regional multilateral diplomacy. But as the EU foreign policy chief, he hardly needs any special mandate to do what is already part of his job description, and what the European External Action Service he leads already does anyway.
It is also not entirely clear what added value European regional engagement would bring at this stage. The challenge is not a shortage of mediation efforts between regional rivals and between Iran and United States. The emir of Qatar, on a visit to Tehran on January 12, is only the last of the string of regional and extra-regional players trying to mediate between Washington and Tehran. Similar efforts were undertaken by Pakistan, Oman, Kuwait, Iraq, Japan, France, and Switzerland.
The real added value that the EU can bring to the table is to finally deliver on its commitments on JCPOA. That would mean to operationalize INSTEX, the special trading mechanism devised to facilitate legitimate trade with Iran, or establish any other mechanisms that would enable such trade, at the very least, in foodstuffs and medicines. Unlike other mediators, three of the EU members have obligations as part of the JCPOA. No diplomatic engagement on behalf of the EU, however well-intentioned, will be successful without the EU/E3 delivering on these obligations. Unless it does, there is a clear risk of the JCPOA going the way of Oslo agreements of 1993 between Israel and Palestinian autonomy – vowing to support it without real delivery amounts to little more than empty declarations.
Unfortunately, little in the E3 approach suggests that it is ready to up its game to save the agreement. Moreover, the joint statement of Britain, France, and Germany undermined those very diplomatic efforts that the EU foreign ministers tasked Borrell to undertake. After Iran announced, on January 5, its next, and last, step in reducing its commitments under the JCPOA, but not pulling out from the agreement, Borrell invited Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to Brussels to discuss the way forward. Then the E3 statement came out that one-sidedly blamed Iran for the crisis that led to the assassination of Soleimani, without ever acknowledging that it was Trump’s ill-advised decision to withdraw from the JCPOA and re-impose sanctions that set the U.S. and Iran on a collision course. In an environment in Iran, heavily conditioned by the mourning of Qassem Soleimani, no Iranian official could be seen as traveling to Europe to engage with those who, in Iranian public opinion’s view, condoned the assassination of a popular national figure.
Those setbacks, however, are not a reason for those in the EU who understand the stakes of a war with Iran to give up on their efforts to pursue peace. Iranians, on their part, should avoid acting as their worst enemies. The apology and condolences offered by President Hassan Rouhani, Zarif, and the IRGC air force chief for mistakenly downing a civilian airplane restored, to some extent, Iran’s moral high ground — and Borrell’s tweet in response was conciliatory. However, tear-gassing students protesting the authorities’ inept crisis management, authoritarianism and corruption swung the pendulum back against the regime, with a brutal crackdown on the protests in November still firmly in the memory. Iran should avoid giving excuses to those in Europe who would happily dump it and revert to unconditional support of the U.S.
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the S&D Group and the European Parliament./