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How Europe is undermining Biden’s Middle East agenda

The E3 appears committed to making the US return to the Iran nuclear deal as difficult as possible

Analysis | Middle East

When President Joe Biden’s addressed the Munich security conference on February 21, many on both sides of the Atlantic were relieved. After four years of Donald Trump’s unapologetic “America First” agenda, here was an American president pledging fealty to the sanctity of the transatlantic alliance and NATO.  

Europeans may be happy with Biden reaffirming the U.S. commitment to their security. However, in the Middle East, Britain, France and, to a lesser extent, Germany (collectively known as E3), are pursuing their perceived interests in ways that undermine the Biden administration’s agenda.

The stagnation around the JCPOA, or Iran nuclear deal, is a case in point. Biden’s goal of rejoining it, after Trump withdrew, presented the Europeans with an opportunity both to mend transatlantic ties and save this key non-proliferation agreement. Yet, the E3 moves to date have been mostly counter-productive.

Just as International Atomic Energy Agency chief Rafael Grossi secured an agreement to continue cooperation with Tehran after an Iranian law restricted the agency’s inspections past February 21, the E3 reportedly pushed for a formal censure of Iran at the Agency’s Board of Governors meeting. Such a step would further narrow the Hassan Rouhani administration’s room for maneuver which already faces intense domestic pressure to end cooperation with the IAEA.

The E3 playing tough with Iran, however, is not surprising given the statements its representatives have been issuing lately. Last October, German foreign minister Heiko Maas called for a “new deal” that would address Iran’s other “destabilizing behavior,” such as its ballistic missiles program and regional activities. In January 2021, French President Emmanuel Macron emphasized that any negotiations with Iran would have to be “very strict,” without specifying what that entails. He also hinted that Saudi Arabia would have to be included in such future negotiations — an obvious non-starter for Iran.

At the root of such equivocations lies the idea that Trump’s sanctions against Iran somehow built leverage that the West must use to force Iranian concessions before the U.S. return to the deal. The E3 made it clear that they considered the ball to be on the Iranian side — despite the fact that it was Washington who violated the deal first.

On the face of it, this looked like strengthening Biden’s hand. In reality, it only encouraged the United States to overplay its hand by refusing to move fast on sanctions relief. This fueled narratives from Rouhani’s domestic critics who would like to give up on the JCPOA conclusively.

Indeed, Iran’s decision to reject, at least for now, the informal talks between the E3, United States, and Iran proposed by EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell demonstrates the failure of the “use the leverage” strategy. In the absence of a credible U.S. move, Tehran will not view Biden any differently from how it viewed Trump. The latter also purported to want to talk to Iran but was left empty-handed as he failed to offer any sanctions relief. Seen from Tehran, nothing has changed so far with Biden in charge. The extreme mistrust of Washington also makes Tehran unwilling to give more time to Biden, who’s only been in office for little more than a month.

If this impasse is not resolved soon, the JCPOA will collapse for good, setting the U.S. and Iran on a collision course toward war at a time when Biden has a massive domestic agenda to focus on. If the E3 are genuine about their wish to save the JCPOA and facilitate a U.S. return, they should urge Biden to lift at least some of the sanctions to allow space for diplomacy instead of encouraging the fantasy that more pressure will somehow land the U.S. and E3 a better deal with Iran.   

It may be that the E3 are taking a hard line on Iran to demonstrate their transatlantic credentials or placate their Middle Eastern partners in Israel, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates. But there is a sense of déjà vu in this. During the original JCPOA negotiations, France played a more hawkish role, which was highly appreciated in Tel Aviv and Riyadh (where it landed Paris lucrative arms deals). Now again, with the prospect of a renewed U.S. engagement with Iran, France and Britain rush to reassure Saudi Arabia and UAE of their continued unconditional support. Some European analysts hope that this dynamic of a “bad cop” (Biden) vs “good cop” (the British and the French) vis-à-vis Israel and the Persian Gulf would help to usher the Middle East towards stabilization.

In reality, though, France and Britain are undermining one U.S. policy in the region that seems to be settled: ending support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, and a broader recalibration of relations with the kingdom. When Biden announced a halt on the sales of “offensive” arms to Saudi Arabia in January, Britain refused to follow suit.

France, which has dramatically increased its arms sales to Saudi Arabia recently, secured a lucrative air defense deal in February. And Macron plans to visit Riyadh as part of his Gulf tour next week which, if maintained, would be a major diplomatic boost to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman after the Biden administration released an intelligence report linking him directly to the brutal murder of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

There is also an ideological dimension that sets Biden and Macron apart in the Middle East. The French president is poised to fight a re-election campaign in 2022, presumably against the far-right Islamophobic challenger Marine Le Pen. In an appeal to conservative opinion, he launched his own campaign against political Islam. Some of his ministers went further and espoused a bizarre notion of “Islamo-leftism” that is supposedly eroding the foundations of French society. Such rhetoric is much closer to Trump than Biden. Its logical extension in foreign affairs is an embrace of the purportedly “anti-Islamist” regimes in UAE, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Such an embrace of some of the world’s worst human rights offenders goes against Biden’s professed commitment to human rights.

These are early days of the Biden administration. It is possible that the United States and Europe will find ways to work constructively together in the Middle East and elsewhere. Washington's underwriting the security of its European allies, however, is no guarantee that they will necessarily be helpful in advancing Biden’s foreign policy goals.

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

Iran's nuclear energy chief Ali Akbar Salehi in Brussels. November, 2018 (Photo: Alexandros Michailidis via
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