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US-Iranian tensions as a challenge for the EU’s geopolitical role

The killing of the Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani by a United States (US) air strike on 3rd January 2020 marked a new peak in tensions between the US and Iran. Even though the strike constitutes basically an act of war, the European Union’s (EU) reaction was, to put it politely, mild. However, for Europe, essential interests in the region are at stake.

The assassination of the Iranian military leader Soleimani made headlines in the international media in January 2020, attracting both criticism and praise. The attack marked a turning point in the conflict between the two countries, which has been going on since the US withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018. With the assassination, the war has shifted from an economic to a military one. Since then, military confrontations between the US and Iranian-backed militias are continuing in the region, fueling the risk of escalation.

Which role did the EU play in this geopolitical crisis? With a historically rooted focus on economic integration, the EU often seems to struggle to assert itself as a major actor in geopolitical affairs. Indeed, the main idea underlying European integration was to ensure security via cooperation in the economic field and in common institutions. The fact that the US has significantly contributed to the safety of European and other NATO allies allowed the EU to turn away from power politics to a certain extent. In this respect, Donald Trump’s election in 2016 as US President and his departure from multilateralism and international cooperation represents an important turnaround. With the growing significance of power politics in international relations, the need for a geopolitical role for the EU is also becoming clearer. Compared with a nation state, the EU, as a multilateral organisation, faces the disadvantage that 27 countries must agree unanimously on foreign and security policy matters before joint action can be taken. However, this intergovernmental procedure often proves to be very time-intensive, especially in urgent crisis situations. As very well illustrated by the US-Iran crisis, a more assertive and independent collective foreign policy could help the EU to act as a credible actor on the international scene.

With the growing significance of power politics in international relations, the need for a geopolitical role for the EU is also becoming clearer.

The lack of an independent European strategy

The rise in tensions between the US and Iran highlighted Europe’s inability to assert itself as a determined actor in foreign policy matters. Instead of a concrete strategy to de-escalate the highly precarious situation, the EU merely issued calls for restraint. EU Council President Charles Michel, who was the first of the leading EU representatives to comment on the situation, stated that “further escalation must be avoided at all cost”. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who has promised to take the lead of a more “geopolitical Commission”, made her first public statement only three days after the killing.  She expressed her deep concern about “Iran’s announcement that it will not respect the limit set by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) any longer.” Likewise, the EU’s High Representative Josep Borrell called on all parties to exercise restraint.

It is obvious that each of the leading EU representatives was careful not to voice criticism of the US action. In addition, solidarity with the US was also shown by its NATO allies as well as in a joint statement by the E3 France, Germany and the United Kingdom, all signatories of the JCPOA. Apart from reaffirming its commitment to the Iran nuclear agreement, the EU did not come up with any further strategies on how it intends to act in this crisis. It became clear that on a geopolitical level, Europe is often no more than a paper tiger.

Ursula von der Leyen, however, underlined the important role she sees for the EU in this crisis, stating that “We have established and time tested relations with many actors in the region and beyond to de-escalate the situation”. It seems doubtful whether this statement really reflects the current situation. In reality, the EU does not seem to have much influence on either Iran or the US. Since it has become clear that the EU is not able to significantly alleviate the impact of US sanctions on Iran, the Iranian government is increasingly losing confidence in Europe. And as for the US, the question arises how much influence the EU really has on the Trump administration, which did not even consider it necessary to inform the EU and its NATO partners in advance about the killing of Soleimani. Thus, a perfect example of the “brain death” of NATO, which French president Emmanuel Macron referred to in a blunt interview.

“it’s a disaster for Europe to be so subservient to the US. Anybody who accepts unilateralism is helping it”

Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif

In order to act as a credible actor in the US-Iran crisis, the EU should be willing to defend its interests independently of the US. Its close relations with the US administration reduces the probability that Europe will be perceived as a neutral broker by the Iranian government and people. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif made this very clear, complaining that “it’s a disaster for Europe to be so subservient to the US. Anybody who accepts unilateralism is helping it”. Therefore, in order to be perceived as a reliable actor by Iran, greater autonomy from the US in foreign policy appears necessary.

Much is at stake for Europe

The killing of Soleimani seems to reduce the already fragile regional stability and increases the risk of an asymmetric war between the US and Iran. Although the EU may not be the most important player in the region, essential European interests are at stake. These include, firstly, upholding the Iran nuclear agreement and, secondly, combating the Islamic State (IS) in the region.

The 2015 Iran nuclear deal represents a significant success for EU foreign policy and a major step in preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Since the US withdrawal in 2018, Europe has repeatedly called on Iran to stick to the agreement. Yet Iran hardly benefits from it as long as the US continues its confrontational course, and the EU seems unable to offer any effective incentives to convince Iran to adhere to the deal. US President Trump’s policy of ‘maximum pressure’ on Iran has not only led to a problematic economic situation in Iran but also to internal uprisings against the Iranian government. Ironically, the US military attack contributes to strengthening even more hard-line factions within Iran that oppose any negotiations with the West, even around the JCPOA.

Even though the E3 once again stated their commitment to the deal after the killing, it seems difficult for Europe to counterbalance the US sanctions imposed on Iran. Europe’s attempts to allow companies to continue trading with Iran by circumventing US sanctions appear to have little effect: Until now, no goods have been exchanged via the “Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges” (INSTEX), set up by the E3 in 2019 in order to facilitate EU-Iranian trade.  In an interview, the Iranian Foreign Minister complained that commitment declarations were not sufficient and criticised: “Words are cheap. Europe should show us one single action”.

Besides the JCPOA, the survival of the international anti-IS coalition led by the US is also at stake. As a consequence of the US air strike on Iraqi territory, the Iraqi parliament demanded the withdrawal of all foreign troops in a non-binding resolution. Thus, not only the US military presence in the region is at risk, but also the continuity of the NATO training mission instructing Iraqi soldiers to fight the IS.

Protests have been going on for a long time in Iraq, against both the continuing American and Iranian interventions in sovereign affairs. It seems, however, that as a result of the air strike, the regional balance of power is shifting to the disadvantage of the US. Indeed, the killing of the Iranian general aroused great sympathy with Iran in Iraq. And in Iran as well, the US attack created a temporary moment of national unity (even though this was undermined shortly afterwards when the Ukrainian passenger plane was shot down).  However, a growing influence of Shiite Iran in the region could have serious consequences. Firstly, Kurdish efforts for independence could flare up again in northern Iraq. Secondly, Sunni resentments could be encouraged, creating a fertile breeding ground for the IS. In this sense, the US action clearly damages European interests in the region. In the fight against the IS, Iraq depends on the support of other states and an interruption of the mission of the international coalition would be fatal at this point of time.

For Europe to assert itself as a diplomatic broker, taking a neutral stance is necessary. This in turn requires a certain emancipation from the US.

Which future options for action?

In the crisis between the US and Iran, the EU is trying to present itself above all as a diplomatic actor by promoting de-escalation and dialogue. However, encouraging communication between Washington and Tehran seems to become increasingly difficult with a growing anti-American attitude in Iran. For Europe to assert itself as a diplomatic broker, taking a neutral stance is necessary. This in turn requires a certain emancipation from the US.

Highly dependent upon the US in defence issues and obliged to NATO-solidarity, a self-confident and independent European action in foreign policy matters seems hard to achieve. Nevertheless, this should be an objective, especially if the EU does not want to lose its relevance as an important actor on the international stage. The 2016 European Union’s Global Strategy already pointed out that “an appropriate level of ambition and strategic autonomy is important for Europe’s ability to promote peace and security within and beyond its borders”. In this sense, the continuing crisis could be a reminder of the importance of a decisive European leadership in foreign and security policy matters.

Eileen Böhringer is a third-year Bachelor student in political and social sciences at the ULB

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