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How will Europe respond to Israeli strike on Iran's consulate in Syria?

How will Europe respond to Israeli strike on Iran's consulate in Syria?

The EU has leverage over Tel Aviv, but it has so far been unable to use it

Analysis | Europe

The fear in Europe that the effects of the war in Gaza would engulf the entire Middle East came one step closer to reality this week with an Israeli air strike against the Iranian consulate in Damascus, Syria, that reportedly killed six Iranians, including a senior commander in the elite Al-Qods unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps Mohammad Reza Zahedi and his deputy.

While Israel has regularly carried out air strikes against Iranian targets and assassinations of Iranian military personnel in Syria, an attack on a consulate, legally on Iranian soil, marks a significant escalation. Until now, Iran’s leadership has been relatively restrained in its response to Israeli actions as it wished to avoid an all-out war. After the Damascus attack, however, Tehran is under increasing pressure from domestic constituencies and regional allies to push back forcefully lest it project an image of extreme weakness that invites further aggression.

And so, Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi promised to take revenge on Israel. At Iran’s request, the U.N. Security Council held an extraordinary meeting on April 2, where the Iranian representative sought the body’s condemnation of the Israeli attack and vowed that Iran reserved the “inherent and legitimate right to give a decisive response, within the international law and the U.N. Charter.”

Hossein Shariat-Madari, the managing editor of the state-run hardline Kayhannewspaper, appointed to that position directly by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, argued that Iran had a legal right to retaliate by attacking Israel’s embassies worldwide. A member of the parliament, Jamal Rashidi Kochi, went further and openly called for an attack on “Zionist diplomatic centers” in the region, singling out neighboring Azerbaijan, a close ally of Israel. Of note, responding to past alleged Israeli attacks, Iran struck targets in Iraqi Kurdistan, another regional entity with strong ties to Israel.

The precise nature, scale, and timing of the Iranian response are yet to be determined. But the first signs are that, as expected, the attack in Damascus would elicit a more forceful reaction. Following the deliberations of the National Security Council, Ayatollah Khamenei delivered a harsh speech in which he promised a strong response by “our brave Iranians,” which many analysts interpreted as a vow to respond directly, not through allies and proxies, Tehran’s usual modus operandi. That, in turn, augurs heightened risks of a further escalation.

That prospect leaves Europe in a precarious position. An all-out war would destabilize the region, provoke mass migration to Europe, possible attacks on European targets in the Middle East (such as the EU naval operation in the Red Sea to counter the Yemeni Houthi rebels, allied with Iran), and revive the fortunes of terrorist organizations such as ISIS and al-Qaida. After the ISIS attack in Moscow on March 22, intelligence services of France and other European countries have already warned of an increased terrorist threat in Europe.

To mitigate those risks, the EU and Britain should use their diplomatic connections to all players in the region to prevent an expansion of the war. That includes Iran with which, unlike the U.S., the EU and its member states have direct relations.

In fact, the EU high representative for foreign policy Josep Borrell uses his contacts with Iran’s foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian to press Iran to influence its regional allies, such as the Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraq- and Syria-based Shiite militias, and Yemeni Houthis, to move towards de-escalation.

The EU is right to assess that Iran’s political, financial, and military support for these groups undermine regional security, but not even Tehran wields absolute control over them. However, these European efforts can bear fruit if they are part of a broader strategy to achieve a sustainable ceasefire in Gaza and re-activation of an inclusive political process leading to a viable Palestinian state co-existing in security with Israel. The EU cannot credibly push back against Tehran’s support for its regional allies if it itself is seen as unable or unwilling to restrain Israel.

Borrell condemned the attack on the Iranian consulate and stressed that the inviolability of diplomatic premises and personnel must always be respected. However, most EU member states failed to condemn the attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus — unlike the regional nations of Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Lebanon, and Turkey, as well as China, Russia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Malaysia, among others. Slovenia, a non-permanent Security Council member, did so at the April 2 U.N. Security Council meeting. France and United Kingdom (which, even though not a part of the EU, still wields considerable influence on the bloc’s Iran policy) mostly blamed Iran for the regional destabilization.

Given the abysmal state of EU-Iran relations, it would be politically unpalatable for the EU to act differently. But the EU has leverage to push Israel to transition to a political track in Gaza and warn it against regional escalation.

So far it has been unable to deploy that leverage: The EU is Israel’s biggest trade partner, accounting for 28.8% of Israel’s trade in 2022. The joint initiative by Spain and Ireland to review a deal that facilitates this trade, with a possible partial suspension due to Israel’s conduct of war in Gaza, has been met with a pushback by Israel’s EU allies, such as Germany, the Czech Republic, Italy, and Austria.

Critics of Israel were encouraged that the review is being conducted by the Borrell-led European External Action Service rather than the European Commission, whose president Ursula von der Leyen has taken strongly pro-Israeli stances. Even so, a suspension is not likely. And so far, there is no evidence whatsoever that the Netanyahu government in Israel is receptive to whatever less robust diplomatic urgings the EU might convey.

The further escalation also risks pushing Iran closer toward obtaining a nuclear deterrent as an ultimate insurance policy, particularly if its current network of regional allies and forward defense posture keep facing decimation by the Israeli attacks. Such a shift is particularly plausible with a looming leadership transition — Ayatollah Khamenei, who issued a fatwa against building nuclear weapons, is 85. The next generation of the Islamic Republic’s leaders may not have such qualms.

Iran’s nuclearization would only compound the destabilizing spillover from the Gaza war and render the decades-long European-led effort to control Iran’s nuclear program ultimately futile. On the current trajectory, however, it doesn’t seem likely that the EU will muster the political will and deploy its leverage to tackle the epicenter of the expanding war in the Middle East — the Gaza conflict.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell enter a hall for a joint news conference, in Tehran, Iran June 25, 2022. Majid Asgaripour/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS

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