How to get Europe back into the Middle East

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Federica Mogherini, the EU High Representative for Foreign Policy, speaks to the media prior to an European Foreign Affairs ministers council in Brussels, Belgium on 26 February 2018. [EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET]

The Foreign Affairs Council is right to focus on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process when it meets Arab leaders on Monday (26 February), but it’s on Iran that the EU is needed the most, writes Franco Frattini.

Franco Frattini served as the Italian foreign minister from 2002- 2004 and 2008-2011.

Today the Foreign Affairs Council will sit for lunch with the most powerful foreign ministers and officials in the Arab World. Only one item is on the agenda: the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

With everything else going on in the region, it has incredibly become a forgotten crisis and the EU is right to try and keep it atop the international agenda, while we wait for Trump’s long-anticipated Middle East peace plan.

The EU has already met with Benjamin Netanyahu and with Mahmoud Abbas; it is now looking to the Arab stakeholders. The issue suits Brussels’ initiative; it would enhance Europe’s role in a region that doesn’t look West very much these days.

Unfortunately, there also are more immediate and concerning issues for the region’s stability and security. Chief among them is Iran, which currently presides over a web of proxies and militias that stretches from the Gulf to the Mediterranean at the risk of wider conflict between major powers.

The regime in Tehran is not prepared to coexist peacefully with its rivals, namely Israel and Saudi Arabia, and has therefore implemented a destabilising foreign policy of interference within the borders of its enemies’ neighbours, without regard to sovereignty or the wellbeing of the local populations.

In Lebanon and Syria, this manifests as extreme military installations on the Israeli borders and the inflammation of sectarian tensions. In Yemen, it is the escalation and preservation of a deadly civil war to Saudi Arabia’s immediate south.

The strategy intends to ensure that Iran’s rivals spend a significant amount of their energies and resources on self-defence. The region will not be able to move forwards unless Tehran decides that the strategy no longer serves its best interests. This is where Europe might be able to play a role.

Europeans still have the expertise and credibility needed to negotiate with Tehran, which could not convincingly be said of many other players. They have the leverage, both economic and political.

Iran knows very well that complete isolation from the West is not in its interests but deeply distrusts the Americans and the current US administration shows no desire to engage Teheran. So the diplomatic challenge of preserving the nuclear accord, while containing Iranian destabilising conduct, falls to the Europeans.

The FAC should, therefore, close ranks with the Arab participants on future Iran strategy, with a view to enlisting their support for any European diplomatic efforts involving Tehran.

Arab Gulf countries’ international relevance to peace and security cannot be overstated. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are among our most essential intelligence and counter-terror partners, and they are the ones currently doing the heavy lifting in security terms, containing and apprehending the remnants of ISIS.

Terrorism has created a security continuum between Europe and the Arabian peninsula which makes the Gulf look like the ‘third shore’ of the Mediterranean. The upcoming visit of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, to some European capitals will provide another key opportunity to emphasise Europe’s commitment to this partnership, without which no Iran containment will succeed.

Monday’s lunch comes at a moment when Israel and Iran are on the verge of military confrontation in Syria. Tehran has also been stepping up its support to Hamas in Gaza. Unlike its Arab neighbours, Iran has never supported the peace process and has actively sought to undermine it through Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.

Should Iran constrain rather than encourage its proxies, it would at least remove one major irritant from the negotiations.

I can understand why the FAC meeting will want to concentrate on the Palestinian issue, but the most pressing concerns in the region at the moment should not be forgotten. Until Iran can be persuaded to take a more constructive role, to respect the sovereignty, and to prioritise cooperation, Arab leaders and Israel will be too distracted by the Iranian challenge to devote sufficient serious attention to the Israel-Palestine process.

The Arab leaders arriving Monday know that they are coming to discuss Jerusalem and Oslo, but they should be reassured that the EU recognises there are other clear and present dangers to the region.

The JCPOA was never intended to be the final round of talks: its scope was so limited because of the scale of the Iranian challenge, not because it was felt that the Iran problem was nuclear-only. The decision was taken to contain Iran in phases.

But if the Europeans can lead a successful second round on the actual dangerous aspects of Iran’s foreign policy, now that the potential aspects have been dealt with, then the accomplishment would surpass its predecessor and, most importantly, immediately transform the region by giving millions of people a chance to live in an age of progress rather than die in an era of war.

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