The European Parliament elections which wrapped up on 26 May are not the end all be all when it comes to the European Union, but the election results show voting populations and member states are politically fragmented. Balancing 28-member state interests means that the transnational political body does not always have a unified position on complex geopolitical issues.
With this said, the Union still has an important role in the international community and many European actors want to have an impact on the issues of the day. So, this piece will analyse what role the European Union and key member states are playing in growing tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and how effective it is in achieving its goals.
The United States has played a pivotal role in ramping up international tensions between the two regional powers. President Trump’s administration has cozied up to Saudi Arabia and taken an antagonistic stance towards Iran to the delight of their Saudi allies.
Most recently, the White House accused Iran of sabotaging four tankers off the coast of the UAE. Two of the ships were Saudi, but no hard evidence has been produced to link Iran to the damage. US national security adviser John Bolton repeated these claims without evidence on 30 May in Abu Dhabi, adding an accusation that Iran is responsible for a recent failed attack on Saudi Arabia’s port city, Yanbu.
Trump’s decision to leave the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear non-proliferation agreement between Iran and the world’s nuclear powers, also plays a large role in the current situation, and it placed the European Union in an awkward position.
European Union’s Growing Role
After the United States decided to renege on the Iran deal, many anticipated the European Union to play a balancing role to the hard-American stance on Iran. European leaders have repeatedly expressed their commitment to the deal and have taken a more neutral stance to Iran-Saudi tensions.
The ascendance of a hawkish American policy toward Iran has placed the European Union in a difficult position, one in which Europe is often playing the role of contradicting US policy, despite their supposed alliance with the Americans. Europe’s position is much less extreme, and it has been accused of being drowned out by the forceful words of the Americans.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif stated in early May that the EU had been bullied by America, and the Europeans had failed to speak forcefully against the US for breaking the nuclear deal and slapping more sanctions on Iran. Several days before Zarif’s statement, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and the foreign ministers of Germany, France, and the UK released a joint statement reading, “we… take note with regret and concern of the decision by the United States not to extend waivers with regards to trade in oil with Iran. We also note with concern the decision by the United States not to fully renew waivers for nuclear non-proliferation projects in the framework of the JCPoA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action).”
Iran and Zarif were disappointed that all the EU was offering was “regret and concern” instead of more forcefully rejecting the United States’ breaking of the deal. In response, Iran made several ultimatums and said they would stop abiding by several commitments due to the United States’ re-imposition of sanctions.
The EU issued a similar statement expressing concern about Iran’s commitment to the nuclear deal and rejecting any ultimatums made by Iran.
With Saudi Arabia and the United States on one side and Iran on the other, both sides are attempting to make the European Union choose a side. But Europe has so far tried to remain neutral, a position made more difficult as the positions harden.
War in Iran?
President Trump, flanked by hawkish advisers, has made a variety of statements hinting at war with Iran in the hopes of effecting regime change. Saudi Arabia has likewise issued hard words to this end, signifying a unified American-Saudi front.
So far, the European Union has rejected any notion of a threat from Iran and British Major General Chris Ghika broke from the American line that Iran is a danger and said, “no, there has been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq or Syria.”
Ghika’s words are particularly notable as he is the deputy commander of an American-led coalition fighting the Islamic State.
American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo once again failed to curry favour for a more confrontational stance from the EU toward Iran during a mid-May meeting in Brussels. Instead, Mogherini urged Pompeo to take a cautious approach to Iran, “we are living in crucial delicate moments where the most responsible attitude to take and should be is maximum restraint and avoiding any escalation on the military side.”
An all-out war in Iran or any intervention to facilitate regime change does not have the support of the European Union, and for now, it appears that the United States has failed to generate support for such actions at home or abroad. But, the European Union’s more neutral stance on the Saudi Arabian-Iranian tensions will always face challenges as long as the United States strongly supports the Saudi Arabian stance.
Without taking a forceful position in support of Iran or against the United States and Saudi Arabia, the European Union runs the risk of being side lined in favour of more aggressive actors. The European Union’s ‘neutral’ stance is also compromised by continued arms shipments to Saudi Arabia, a development left unchecked that undermines Europe’s commitment to peaceful resolutions and conflict prevention.