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How the US and Europe can show restraint in the Middle East

A new report from the European Parliament highlights areas of mutual interest.

Analysis | Middle East

As the Biden administration sets out its views on foreign policy, including relations with Europe and the Middle East, the European Parliament adopted its annual report on EU common foreign and security policy. While the document duly reflects the panoply of liberal internationalist themes, from a need to counter Russian and Chinese disinformation and to bolster cybersecurity and climate diplomacy, European lawmakers took some noteworthy positions on the Middle East.

If pursued by the governments on both sides of the Atlantic, they could usher in more restrained Western policies towards that troubled region. That, in turn, could push the regional players towards some degree of de-escalation and mutual accommodation.

Specifically, the report drafted by the chair of the EP foreign affairs committee, German Christian-democrat David McAllister, redresses some of the imbalances prevailing in the Western governments’ relations with two of the main antagonists in the Middle East: Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Thus, even if Saudi Arabia is considered an EU partner, the report condemns, in strong terms, the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen. It demands accountability for war crimes committed by that coalition and other actors, including the Houthis.

MEPs call on the EU and its member states to support referral of the situation in Yemen to the International Criminal Court. They also demand, once again, sanctions against Saudi and Emirati officials involved in war crimes (the Houthis are already under the U.N.-mandated sanctions). And they repeat their call on EU governments to stop arms sales to Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates as those “only make them complicit in perpetuating the conflict and prolonging the suffering of the Yemeni people”.

At the same time, European lawmakers expressed their strong support for the revival of the Iran nuclear deal.  Not only do they still consider it a “key pillar of the global non-proliferation architecture, acting as a cornerstone of regional peace, security and stability,” but they also call on the United States “to refrain from taking unilateral actions, and contribute to the rules-based global order instead.”

MEPs also rejected the Trump administration’s “unilateral extraterritorial sanctions” that “undermine the Union’s legitimate economic and foreign policy interests.” They specifically fault those sanctions for “hindering humanitarian trade with Iran at the time of COVID-19.”

Most significantly, they call on United States to “unconditionally rejoin the JCPOA which should go hand in hand with urging Iran to revert to full compliance with its commitments.” On the latter point, the EP condemns Iran for the decision to begin enriching uranium to 20 percent, but the way the language is crafted clearly indicates that the onus is on the United States for violating the agreement first.

The timing of the resolution coincided with confirmation hearing testimony from Anthony Blinken and Avril Haines, President Biden’s nominees for secretary of state and director of national intelligence, respectively.

Blinken made it clear that Biden will end the U.S. support for the Saudi actions in Yemen. He failed to specify whether that included an end to arms sales to Riyadh. He also acknowledged the Saudi “right to defend itself from aggression, including from Yemen,” without explaining what that right entails, an omission that may be disappointing for those who advocate for a more profound rethink of relations with Saudi Arabia.

However, even if a U.S. course correction would amount to little more than rolling back some of the excesses of Trump’s and Mike Pompeo’s groveling to the Saudis, it would already be a move in a right direction. That impression would be reinforced if Haines acted swiftly on her pledge to release the classified intelligence on the murder of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi that might directly implicate the Saudi Crowne Prince Mohammad Bin Salman

On Iran, Biden’s team vowed to consult closely with “U.S. allies” in Israel and the Persian Gulf, address Iran’s “destabilizing activities” in the region, and seek a “longer and stronger” agreement constraining Iran’s nuclear program.

While this may sound hawkish, the new administration appears to be moving towards re-establishing communication lines with Tehran, particularly seeing that Biden appointed many Obama veterans who negotiated the JCPOA, like Wendy Sherman, William Burns ,and Jake Sullivan, to senior positions in the Biden administration. Biden’s appointment of Robert Malley, the current head of the International Crisis Group, as a special envoy on Iran also demonstrates that the incoming administration is focused on diplomacy.

Admittedly, there are myriad of obstacles to renewed dialogue with Tehran — namely opposition from hawkish voices in Washington, Tel-Aviv, and Riyadh — as well as the rising skepticism in Tehran itself as it moves closer to its own presidential elections later this year.  However, it looks like the Biden administration is determined to try a diplomatic path with Iran. The rescission of the “Muslim ban” that disproportionately affected the Iranians on the first day of Biden’s presidency has already improved the atmospherics.

If changes in U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran are indeed underway, European governments should also act in the direction advised by the European Parliament. On the JCPOA, they mostly already do. On Saudi Arabia and UAE, however, some powerful EU member states, like France, privilege their own narrow security and trade interests that lead to the bourgeoning arms exports that fuel the war in Yemen and overall regional instability.

There is a risk that if Washington finds a way to talk to Tehran, some European countries might be tempted to assert their own relevance by complicating such talks. That would be a repetition of what happened during the Obama years. On nuclear talks leading to the JCPOA, France was admittingly more hawkish.

France and Britain also tried to capitalize on the Gulf monarchies’ sense of abandonment by Obama’s diplomacy with Iran. That led them to increase their arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE and align with them closely on a more interventionist policy towards Syria than the U.S. was ready to adopt. Repeating such moves, either for short-term opportunistic reasons, or misguided interpretation of the “strategic autonomy,” would be detrimental both to the regional security and transatlantic ties.

Instead, both United States and its European allies must make it clear to the Middle Eastern actors that none of them can count on their unconditional support. Cultivating some countries as eternal allies and ostracizing others as permanent pariahs serves neither U.S. nor EU interests and values.

A more restrained approach is more likely to incentivize the regional antagonists to reach out mutually than external backing of some of them at the expense of others. If the United States and EU can agree on such an approach, it would also have an added value of bridging transatlantic differences, which is what both sides profess to seek under the Biden’s presidency. The European Parliament provided a useful example of balanced approach that the governments would be well-advised to follow.     

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the S&D Group and the European Parliament

Vice President Joe Biden makes remarks at the Atlantic Council Gala at the Ritz Carlton, Washington, DC, May 3, 2011. (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)
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