EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borell speaks during a debate at the European Parliament on January 14, 2020 in Strasbourg, France. - Borrell urged all parties to the Iran nuclear accord to save it, saying escalating tensions made the deal "more important than ever." He spoke after Britain, France and Germany formally triggered a dispute mechanism under the accord, after Iran announced its fifth major step back from compliance. (Frederick Florin/AFP via Getty Images)

Europeans Look to More Local Approach to Containing Iran

Analysts argue that because Europe is unable to make up for a leadership vacuum left by the US leaving the JCPOA, its strategy should focus more on Arab countries

Europe in an awkward position vis-à-vis the need to contain Iran.

The focus on containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions has almost always been on the United States, particularly before US President Donald Trump pulled his country out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, otherwise known as the “Iran nuclear deal”) in 2018.

Without the US, the European parties remaining in the deal have been trying to maintain it without the largest incentive for Iran remaining free of nuclear weapons: sanctions relief.

Even after the US withdrew, allies, particularly in the Gulf, have relied on the US touted “maximum pressure” campaign, which involves imposing such severe sanctions on the Islamic Republic and any entity doing business with them that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani would be forced back to the negotiating table to sign a more favorable deal to the US. As no new deal has yet to be signed, many are growing frustrated.

This has left many European experts on Iran wondering what a more effective European Union strategy might look like.

Dr. Cornelius Adebahr, a nonresident fellow with Carnegie Europe, who lived in Tehran for two years and has worked on European policy toward Iran since 2011, has published a new paper with the foundation arguing for the EU to take a more regional approach to Iran.

“The European Union … needs to look at a regional policy approach to Iran, which has so far failed to develop,” Adebahr told The Media Line.

The policy he advocates for is the EU to play a leadership role as the Arab countries in the region, particularly in the Gulf, negotiate with Iran on security issues. Adebahr argues that the time is right for Arab countries to work with Iran.

“Despite the overall anti-Iranian stance of the Gulf countries, backed by the GCC and the Arab countries, the United States and to some extent Israel, individual Gulf countries have started reaching out to Iran; the UAE has done so and there have been tacit talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran. … There is a sense in [the Arab world] that Iran will remain and they are going to have to somehow accommodate Tehran,” he told The Media Line.

“It’s been two years of the full maximum pressure and you add a corona pandemic to it and still Iran hasn’t buckled. The states in the region are wondering what else does it take for the US to be successful?” Adebahr added.

The willingness of Arab countries to negotiate with Iran, Adebahr argues, comes in part from Iran’s foes in the region giving up on the current US strategy.

“This could be a moment where the Arab states are looking for a way out and this is where the Europeans could come in. My whole point is not that the European Union is a strong actor, which it is not, but more about seizing the opportunity, changing the dynamic, and coming up with a genuine new proposal,” Adebahr said.

Dr. Emma Soubrier, visiting scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, agrees that including the Gulf countries is important in this new approach.

“One of the limits of the JCPOA that was consistently criticized by our Gulf partners was the fact that they felt sidelined, as they had not been invited to take any part in the negotiations leading to the agreement – even if they are in effect on the frontline of these matters, being Iran’s neighbors. It thus appears relevant and welcome to engage a sustained dialogue with all Gulf states, including the six member-states of the Gulf Cooperation Council and Iraq, going forward,” she told The Media Line.

Adebahr contends that by helping Iran and the other Arab states to reach a local agreement, the Europeans could remove themselves from the current awkward situation they find themselves in between the US and Iran.

“The Europeans are torn between two poles [of trying to balance the demands from Washington to be tougher on Tehran, and the demands from Iran to finally fulfill the nuclear deal,” Adebahr said.

Adebahr argues that Europe could help Gulf countries find agreement with Iran on noncontroversial proposals like extending aspects of the JCPOA to other nations in the region that now have nuclear programs, like the United Arab Emirates and, shortly, the Saudis. These countries did not have or were not close to having nuclear programs when the JCPOA was agreed upon in 2015.

“They need to discuss very technical issues about nuclear safety, [like] how do you alert a neighboring country if there is a nuclear incident at your power plant? These are very sensible things to talk about with your neighboring countries, especially if you have the reactors sitting across the Persian Gulf,” Adebahr said.

In addition, he believes the EU could play a crucial role in helping the Arab countries form maritime security charters, UN-language already used in the Law of the Sea to prevent Iranian attacks previously seen in the geopolitically import Strait of Hormuz.

The regional countries could find common ground on the aforementioned subjects, Adebahr believes, by taking politics out of the equation.

“Trying to depoliticize these elements and bring in technical assistance at the level of nuclear safety or maritime security, this is something that doesn’t get talked about because everyone is either talking about proxies or the nuclear program or missiles,” Adebahr said. “Below that politicized level, there is a lot of ground for cooperation that the Europeans could promote.”

Soubrier agrees, adding “The incremental approach hinted at in this plan would be very wise and advisable, particularly the idea of coming up with a Gulf charter on maritime security, which is a crucial yet less controversial topic in Gulf security overall,” she said.

Still Europe is not monolithic and Adebahr acknowledges, “So far there hasn’t been this kind of agreement among member states to say this is what we want. The Europeans have a fairly unified policy on Iran but there is no unified policy of the EU or its member states toward the GCC countries, and in particular Saudi Arabia.”

While the current foreign minister of the European Union, Josep Borrell, has the authority to make an agreement such as Adebahr is proposing, Adebahr says that the support of the UK (while not an EU member anymore), France, and Germany are crucial to any deal passing.

“The Nordics are on board, the Central and Eastern European countries are indifferent, and it’s a question of where Italy (with its ties to North Africa) and Spain will go. If France, Germany, and the UK can agree, there is a high chance they can convince the others to follow suit,” Adebahr said.

In addition, Adebahr argues that nongovernmental actors, like think tanks and foundations, play a crucial role in getting this kind of agreement brokered.

“There is a fairly lively scene outside government; it’s kind of political in a wider sense. Also with government-funded institutes or foundations with public money, because it is not all private as Europe has a large public sector anyway,” Adebahr said.

While Adebahr argues that Arab countries are more willing now to go to the negotiating table on this European brokered deal, he acknowledges that Iran has a better hand to play in making a deal with regional players.

“This is more of an incentive to Iran, rather than the region itself. The Arab countries have been singling out Iran for all the evil things that it is doing, so that is something they would have to swallow. … In return, they would get a less belligerent Iran,” he said.

Soubrier believes that localizing this approach might be enough to get the other regional actors on board.

“Being more included, and assured that their perspective and specific strategic interests and security needs are being heard and taken into account, the Arab Gulf states might be inclined to agree to the following as it would be clear that every regional actor is being asked to do its part in achieving a common goal that is in the long-term interest of all parties,” she said.

However, Ellie Geranmayeh, senior policy fellow and deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, argues that global parties outside of Europe are still needed for this kind of deal to work.

“These suggestions are sound policy but to get movement on any of these proposals, Europeans will need to also draw Washington into negotiations with the Arab Gulf actors who on security and nonproliferation issues remain highly influenced by the United States. Eventually, Russia and China will need to be included in this process, too, to ensure harmony among world powers with respect to stability in the region,” Geranmayeh told The Media Line.

This might make the deal less attractive to the Iranians, as outside influence, according to Adebahr, is unwelcome by a country that sees itself as the region’s superpower.

Noticeably missing in the deal is a focus on economic relief for Iran, where the focus shifts back to the US. Adebahr does not see an increase in trade from current levels, particularly from the Saudis, as a result of a European-brokered deal. He also does not see an increase in commercial ties with the UAE, as Dubai is and has long been the hot spot for both legal and illegal trade with Tehran.

“As long as the US sanctions are in place, both European and Arab countries will be very careful about doing business with Iran; none of the countries want to incur the wrath of the US Treasury or be exposed to US sanctions,” Adebahr said. “There will continue to be economic pressure on Iran for some time.”

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