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Europe's hopelessly murky, mixed messaging on restraint

Europe's hopelessly murky, mixed messaging on restraint

Internal divisions on culpability for the current strife in the Middle East make the EU’s calls for calm a little flat

Europe

The EU has condemned Iran’s April 14 drone and missile attack against Israel conducted in response to Israel’s lethal bombing of the Iranian consulate in Damascus, Syria on April 1. However, while the condemnation is unanimous, EU officials and individual member states have different positions on the issue.

Those differences broadly reflect the pre-existing divisions on the Middle East since the war in Gaza started last October. Even though the EU is united in its calls for restraint and de-escalation, these divisions are limiting the diplomatic role Europe could play in actually bringing those objectives closer to reality.

The main fault-line is between the moderates who see the Gaza war’s root causes and in turn push for an immediate ceasefire, and the hawks who prioritize Israel’s nearly unqualified right using any means necessary to defend itself above any other consideration. These attitudes have conditioned responses to the conflict between Israel and Iran.

Hours after the Iranian attack, the EU high representative for foreign policy Josep Borrell issued a brief condemnatory statement on behalf of 27 member states. In a separate interview, Borrell, a key member of the moderate camp, evaded the question of whether the EU would support Israel if Tel Aviv were to retaliate against Tehran. Instead, he emphasized the need for de-escalation and warned against sleepwalking into a regional war.

He also said there are those who’d wish such an escalation to occur because would divert attention from the war and humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, in what could be interpreted as a snipe at Israel’s beleaguered Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

Among the EU member states, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, a notable moderate, made sure to condemn, alongside the Iranian attack, “all forms of violence that threaten the safety and well-being of innocent civilians,” in a likely reference to Gaza, and called for conflict resolution through diplomatic channels. In another comment, Sanchez didn’t even mention Iran, limiting his statement to an expression of a “maximum concern” at the regional escalation.

At the other end of the spectrum is Germany which accused Iran of bringing the Middle East to the brink of the abyss through its “dangerous behavior.” The German foreign ministry vowed to “diplomatically secure Israel’s defensive victory” — without explaining what such a victory would entail and how it is supposed to be achieved all the while preventing a further escalation.

Other European heavy-hitters — France and the non-EU United Kingdom — have equally taken strongly pro-Israeli stances. French President Emmanuel Macron called for Iran’s isolation as an alternative to the “conflagration,” including through “convincing the countries of the region that Iran is a danger, imposing more sanctions and pressure against Iran, also on its nuclear activities.”

British Foreign Minister David Cameron, meanwhile, offered a “complete understanding” for Israel’s bombing of the Iranian consulate in Damascus, on the grounds that it housed the IRGC personnel which “have done terrible things all over the world.” Cameron was seemingly oblivious to the fact that it’s a common practice for diplomatic premises to host military or intelligence officers, some of whom may not be the paragons of respect for human rights and adherence to international law.

It seems that on the EU level, the hawks are having an upper hand. At its informal discussion on April 16, the bloc’s foreign ministers agreed to pursue new sanctions against Iran concerning, notably, the alleged provision of drones and missiles to Tehran’s allies in the region, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, and various Shiite groups in Syria and Iraq. They also agreed to identify and close whatever loopholes remain in the implementation of the existing sanctions on the supply of the components used for the production of unmanned aerial vehicles in Iran. These new measures are expected to be imposed on Iran at the formal foreign ministers meeting on April 22.

Yet the hawks’ victory does not seem to be complete: contrary to a push from some member states and support from Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission and formally Borrell’s boss, there is still no agreement on the terrorist designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Borrell reiterated his position that such a listing would require a court decision from an EU member state that would have established the IRGC’s involvement in terrorist activity on the EU soil. Presently, there is no such judicial ruling. The real reason, however, seems to be political: reluctance to further deteriorate the already seriously strained relations with Iran over a mostly symbolic designation.

The EU is right in calling Iran to the task — a strike on a sovereign state, in the circumstances it took place, is a flagrant violation of the international law and cannot be accepted as a new normal. Yet the unambiguity of the condemnation of Iran’s actions and the alacrity with which the direction of the new sanctions has been agreed stands in a sharp contrast with Europe’s inability to bring the tiniest of consequences to bear on Israel, six months after its destructive war in Gaza.

Equally of note, France and Britain, together with the United States, blocked a statement in the U.N. Security Council condemning Israel’s attack on the Iranian consulate in Syria — a statement that, according to some experts, could have prevented an Iranian retaliation.

Taking a tough stance on Iran, while justified on its own terms in light of Tehran’s actions, seems to be a price Europe is willing to pay in order to convince Israel to exercise restraint in its own retaliation plans. However, de-escalation imperative requires that attempts to reassure Israel of Europe’s support be balanced by an outreach to Tehran.

If Europe were to follow Macron’s and other hawks’ calls for Iran’s isolation, it would risk losing whatever leverage it still retains there. And Europe would need that leverage if it were to try to convince Tehran not to unleash an even stronger response to Israel’s hypothetical retaliation.

Ursula von der Leyen (CDU, l), President of the European Commission, stands at the lectern in the European Parliament building. Josep Borrell, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, sits in the background. The EU Parliament is debating the attack on Israel and preparations for the EU summit at the end of October. REUTERS

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