The European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) published yesterday a statement calling on European governments to step up pro-active efforts aimed at de-escalating tensions in the Middle East. The statement follows the US killing of an Iranian top general and the Iranian response in form of missile attacks against two American bases in Iraq.
American president Trump had ordered a targeted killing which most often is counterproductive. The killed person is replaced by someone else and the other side responds in a dangerous spiral of escalation. An Iranian retaliatory reaction was inevitable. In this case, the Iranian reaction was much less violent than feared and mostly symbolic, resulting in no American casualties.
For the time being the US and Iran seem to have retracted from their aggressive rhetoric and withdrawn from the brink of war which their actions could have led to. This might open a window of opportunity for further de-escalation and active EU diplomacy.
The statement was issued ahead of the extraordinary foreign affairs council meeting tomorrow afternoon (10 January) on the situation in the region. It was signed by a number of former prime ministers, foreign ministers and diplomats, including Carl Bildt, chair of the ECFR board and former Swedish prime minister, and Javier Solana, former EU foreign policy chief and secretary-general of NATO.
It argues that Europeans cannot afford to be bystanders in unfolding developments. EU must urgently chart a more active path, adopting tangible measures that help to de-escalate tensions before it is too late.
According to the statement, EU and EU member states should position themselves as active mediators by reaching out to both the US administration and Iran. The Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif, for example, has an open invitation to Brussels which he has not yet accepted.
EU member states should find arrangements with the Iraqi government to maintain elements of the European counter-IS presence in Iraq. This might require a rapid visit to Bagdad by Josep Borrell, the new EU foreign policy chief, together with a number of foreign ministers from the member states.
Borrell should also convene a meeting at foreign ministerial level to preserve the nuclear agreement with Iran (the JCPoA). A meeting on such a high level with all signatories has hardly taken place since the agreement was unilaterally cancelled by the US last year. In face of American sanctions, Iran started a process of backsliding on its commitments under the agreement.
The statement also suggests that European governments should coordinate their approaches with key regional stakeholders, such as Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE), especially in terms of pressing Washington to genuinely invest in a diplomatic solution to the crisis. Both Saudi Arabia and UAE are now calling for de-escalation.
Commenting on the statement, ECFR’s Iran expert, Ellie Geranmayeh, said, “Focus should be fixed on avoiding a wider military conflict between Iran and the United States – an outcome neither side appears to want despite the current escalatory cycle – and creating space to protect accompanying European interests”.
Asked by The Brussels Times if really the danger of escalation is over for this time, she replied that the latest events were a peak in the escalation during the Trump administration. “For the time being it seems that we have reached a cooling off-period, at least for a few weeks. Until now there have been incidents almost every month so the situation can easily escalate again.”
She agreed that this opened a window of opportunity for EU mediation. “But this requires that EU can agree on a common position on how to act in this new role. It has to avoid blaming any of the parties and be open to start a dialogue on a very high level, putting all its political weight behind it.”
Geranmayeh added that EU has a very high stake in preserving the nuclear deal with Iran and finding some form of compromise. In her opinion, it is likely that Iran will continue to keep the agreement until the elections in the US in November and then see who will be elected to American president.
“For the time being we don’t know where exactly Iran is going as regards its commitments under the agreement but it’s a positive sign that Iran hasn’t announced that it will go up enriching uranium to the 20 % level.”
“It will be up to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to continue to monitor the situation and provide its findings to the signatories. Judging from Iran’s statement last Sunday, Iran intends to continue to cooperate with the IAEA and grant it access to inspect the nuclear facilities in the country.”
On regional actors, she said that Saudi Arabia and UAE have changed their positions on Iran, following the Iranian threats and attacks against their oil fields, that were seen as a warning alert to them. “They know that they would pay a heavy price in case of a war with Iran, especially if they cannot be sure that the US would protect them.”
Another regional actor, Israel, feels even more threatened by Iran, both directly and by its proxies in Lebanon and Gaza. Israel and Iran have been close to war in Syria where Iran under the now killed Iranian general has been trying to establish a military foothold. Under its current government, Israel supports the Trump administration and is not likely to be asked to join such a diplomatic offensive.
Ellie Geranmayeh´s expectations from the foreign affairs council are cautious. “I would be happily surprised if anything concrete would come out from the meeting. On the other hand, there is a sense in Europe that it must do something. The most likely outcome is that there will be a follow-up by the E3+EU. A visit to Iraq by Borrell would also underscore the need for European military presence there to counter IS but that may require an US umbrella.”
At the Commission’s press briefing in Brussels today, the lead spokesperson for EU foreign affairs declined to comment on the proposals in the ECFR statement. “There are very many ideas, suggestions and recommendations and I hope that the foreign ministers are listening to all the advice they are getting.”
He referred to the different meetings during the week, including a special college meeting yesterday. “A lot of intense activities have been going on. We hope that the council meeting tomorrow will be an opportunity for the member states to discuss exactly such input as this, on what to do and how to do it, in order to achieve our overall goal which is de-escalation.”
The Brussels Times