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Choppy Middle East Waters Causing Transatlantic Diplomatic Ripple Effect

By Charles Bybelezer | The Media Line

February 17, 2019

(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
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The United States and Europe at loggerheads over key regional security issues such as Iranian nuclear threat and Syria war

World leaders gathered in Germany for the final day of the annual Munich Security Conference, which generated fireworks as the United States and Europe sparred over Middle East policy.

In the latest exchange, President Donald Trump called on European nations to repatriate and put on trial some 800 citizens that traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State. The comments were an apparent rebuke of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s insinuation that the pull-out of American troops from Syria will embolden Russia and Iran.

That accusation, in turn, followed a call by Vice President Mike Pence for European powers to nix the 2015 nuclear accord, from which Washington withdrew last May. The back-and-forth dispute on crucial Middle East policy matters comes on the backdrop of the boycott by some Western European foreign ministers of last week’s U.S.-sponsored summit in Poland.

“There was no real coordination between Washington and European capitals at the Warsaw conference. In fact, they could not even agree on a focus as originally it was labeled as an ‘anti-Iran’ event but this was eventually changed to ‘peace and security’ in the Middle East,” Dr. Ely Karmon, a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at The Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, told The Media Line. “Moreover, the lack of any joint declaration at the end made it quite clear there is a significant gap separating the sides.

“This was again evident in Munich,” he continued, “with Merkel speaking harshly about the U.S. and President Trump demanding that Europe take back hundreds of ISIS members currently imprisoned in Kurdish-controlled areas of Syria. This divide also puts Israel in an awkward position because it is aligned with the U.S. on the Iranian nuclear threat but opposes an American withdrawal from Syria. That there is no consensus weakens everyone’s positions.”

At stake is the “great risk” of war, according to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who on Sunday in Munich added that, “[this] will be even greater if [countries] continue to turn a blind eye to severe violations of international law” by the U.S. and Israel. “Europe needs to be willing to get wet if it wants to swim against the dangerous tide of [American] unilateralism,” he concluded.

Notably, the warning came just hours after Zarif described as “laughable” an affirmation by Vice President Pence that the Islamic Republic is planning another Holocaust. “Iran has always supported the Jews. We are just against Zionists,” Tehran’s top diplomat clarified.

Many analysts believe the chasm between the U.S. and Europe on almost everything Middle East-related is liable to widen, as Brussels readies to introduce a “Special Purpose Vehicle” to circumvent American sanctions on Iran, and with President Trump expected to soon unveil an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan that may deviate sharply from the longstanding two-state paradigm supported by the Europeans.

Moreover, the front against Iran, in which Sunni Muslim nations play an integral role, is starting to show cracks, with Arab leaders over the weekend walking back the notion that serious cooperation with the Jewish state is possible so long as the conflict with the Palestinians remains unresolved.

“Eventually, there is no other alternative than to come to some sort of compromise on all the issues,” Dr. Alireza Nourizadeh, Director of the London-based Center for Iranian and Arab Studies, told The Media Line. “As regards Iran, for example, the Europeans have pursued measures that totally contradict the U.S. approach but at the same time they have not given Tehran free rein to develop its [ballistic] missile program and continue its involvement in wars throughout the region.

“In terms of Syria, Turkey needs American support to achieve its aims and could convince the U.S. to maintain a limited military presence so this difference might also be bridged. With respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Dr. Nourizadeh noted,” all of the Arabs sitting with Netanyahu in Warsaw will not accept a peace plan that does not consider eastern Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state. Therefore, this subject could be the most difficult for the U.S. and can make difficult its effort to mobilize the Arab world to isolate Iran.”

This interplay of competing interests has rendered the Middle East one of the most complex geopolitical battlegrounds in the world. And the inability to usher in a modicum of stability is at least partially due to the apparent intractability of problems that, if they could be tackled in isolation, may have been solved long ago.

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