Europe is being dragged into Tehran, whether it likes it or not
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Europe is being dragged into Tehran, whether it likes it or not

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES
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With SAMUEL STOLTON

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Europe is being dragged into
Tehran, whether it likes it or not

In an unexpected turn of events, EU member states could be dragged further and further into the ongoing standoff between Iran and the United States in the Middle East.

Speaking to reporters last night, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that following the downing of the Ukraine International Airlines flight to Kiev from Tehran on Wednesday, which had been carrying 63 Canadian passengers, his country will be participating in an investigation of the disaster, along with the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), who have accepted an invitation from Tehran to take part in the investigation.

However, certain EU nations are edging closer and closer to the spat between Iran and the US, a position the bloc had previously tried to distance itself from. Earlier this week, the EU’s foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell called for de-escalation, describing the situation in the Middle East as “extremely worrying.”


Sent out every Friday afternoon, BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels.

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Following comments from both Trudeau as well as Farhad Parvaresh, Iran’s representative at the International Civil Aviation Organization that France could soon be pulled into the investigation, Europe is beginning to look as if it may be forced to rescind its intention to maintain a distance from the events in Iran and Iraq.

On Friday morning, France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said that his country was at hand to assist in the examination of the aircraft, after suggestions from Canada and the US that it may have been hit by an Iranian missile by mistake. A video published by The New York Times on Thursday evening appeared to show footage of the plane being hit mid-air by a missile.

But, there are more questions than answers that emerge from the video: How is it that is ‘just so happens’ someone was outside filming the Tehran sky, at the exact time of the impact, just after the plane took off at 6.12 am in the morning? The cameraman would have had to have incredible dexterity in following the trajectory of a high-velocity missile and an aircraft travelling at 8,000 feet and a speed of more than 300 miles an hour.

Such uncomfortable questions may have to be taken into account, along the broader parameters of the investigation.

Meanwhile, on Thursday evening it transpired that Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has been giving advice to Canada’s Trudeau, with Rutte offering Canada “all the support that the Netherlands can offer,” according to a spokesperson for the Dutch Prime Minister. Rutte of course has experience in a similar context, due to the 2014 downing of the MH17 flight over Eastern Ukraine, in which 196 Dutch people were killed.


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The UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has also confirmed that his country is working alongside Canada and other international partners, and called for “a full, transparent investigation”.

Earlier this week, before the aircraft was downed, one source in Brussels had told me that the EU was actually in a sure position with regards to the tensions in Tehran. “The fact that Europe has adopted a relatively cold stance at times towards Trump, means that the bloc in fact is not necessarily on the radar with regards to any potential tit-for-tat attacks,” the source said.

And indeed, speaking at the London School of Economics earlier this week, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen had summarised Europe’s rapport with the US with due veracity and conciseness. “I’m a strong believer in the transatlantic partnership and friendship…although we do have issues with the White House,” she said.

But, while it may at first have been deemed a relatively inconsequential outsider after the US killing of Soleimani, the EU’s position in Tehran is evolving, and not necessarily in a way that the bloc is comfortable with. European input in the investigations will colour any future instrument that the bloc has at its disposal – such as scaling back the trading plans between the EU and Iran under the INSTEX mechanism or perhaps the decision to either offer or refuse military support to combat the potential resurgence of Islamic State in Iraq.

Either way, Europe’s neutrality in the Middle East is at risk of being compromised by participating in the investigation of Ukrainian flight PS752, becoming as it may do, directly subject to the wider geopolitical forces at play. To save face, certain European member states may have no choice but to take part. Particularly after Iran’s decision earlier this week to withdraw further from certain aspects of the nuclear deal, there is a greater impetus for Europe to be seen as taking more of a proactive stance, rather than a passive one. EU Foreign Ministers will discuss the matter in Brussels this afternoon.

Iran’s Government spokesman Ali Rabiei said yesterday that “countries whose citizens were aboard the plane can send representatives” to take part in the investigation. From the European side, with 10 Swedes, four Britons and three Germans reportedly being on board, more countries on the continent could be dragged into what has proven to be a divisive and politically delicate situation. And one that I’m sure the EU would probably much prefer to keep well away from.

 


Sent out every Friday afternoon, BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels.

If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every Friday, subscribe to the newsletter here.


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