The Middle East is facing a moment of acute peril. Core European interests related to regional stability, the threat posed by the Islamic State group (ISIS), and the preservation of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal are directly at risk.
Europeans cannot afford to be bystanders in unfolding developments that may lead to another disastrous military conflict on Europe’s doorstep.
As European foreign ministers prepare to meet on Friday, they must urgently pursue a proactive common approach to avoiding this worst-case scenario. They must immediately take tangible measures to help ease tensions before it is too late.
They should focus on avoiding a wider military conflict between Iran and the United States – an outcome neither side appears to want, despite the current escalatory cycle – and creating space to protect European interests. Their immediate measures should include:
- Urgently position European states as active mediators to de-escalate the situation. Close ongoing dialogue with the US government, as well as High Representative Josep Borrell’s invitation for Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to visit Brussels, should form elements of an energetic, high-level diplomatic effort to press both sides to avoid further escalation. This should involve pressing Tehran to immediately restrain its response to the killing of General Qassem Soleimani. Given Zarif’s inability to travel to the US, European countries should coordinate with one another in putting forward a proposal to hold a special session of the UN Security Council at a meeting of foreign ministers outside the United Nations’ headquarters (in New York). As a follow-up, Europe should arrange a high-level meeting in Tehran, within the framework of regional security dialogues with Iran led by the European Union and France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom.
- Work with the Iraqi government to maintain elements of the European counter-ISIS presence in Iraq. Despite their heightened security concerns following Iranian missile attacks on US bases in the country, Europeans should explore ways to maintain support for this important mission. European countries will need to provide enhanced security to their troops and citizens, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, where there is a growing risk of escalation. In parallel, Borrell and several European foreign ministers should visit Baghdad – and appoint an empowered EU special envoy to the international anti-ISIS campaign – to operationalise Europe’s enhanced role. Such a visit would signal heightened European support for Iraq’s sovereignty at a moment when the country risks becoming the focal point of an escalating conflict. This would also help Europe use political and economic engagement to push Iraqi leaders towards much-needed domestic reforms.
- Borrell should convene a Joint Commission meeting of parties to the 2015 nuclear deal at foreign ministerial level to avoid a nuclear proliferation crisis, which remains at the heart of European engagement with Iran. While Iran has ceased to comply with the nuclear deal, it has stressed that it is willing to reverse this step if parties to the agreement provide it with economic relief. Importantly, Iran continues to grant international monitors access to nuclear facilities and has not yet drastically increased its uranium enrichment programme. As an immediate step, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the EU should intensify their consultations with China and Russia on a common political and economic approach that prevents Iran from significantly expanding its nuclear programme – and that ensures International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors retain full oversight of Iranian nuclear activities. This could involve the provision of a joint economic package to Iran, such as a substantial credit line for future purchases of oil. China, Europe, and Russia could work together to make a strong case to the Trump administration that Iran requires some economic breathing room if the sides are to prevent further Iranian escalation. In the long term, Europeans need to continue to press for a US-Iranian opening on a return to the comprehensive framework established by the nuclear deal.
- Work to prevent tensions between the US and Iran from leading to a wider regional unravelling. This is particularly important at a moment when other major powers have signalled their willingness to engage in dialogue. With the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia now calling for de-escalation, European governments should coordinate their approaches with these key regional states – especially to press Washington to genuinely invest in a diplomatic solution to the crisis, and to preserve the narrow diplomatic openings that have recently emerged in Yemen. A détente between Iran and its Arab neighbours could provide an opportunity to change Iranian leaders’ calculations in ways that reduce the risk of regional escalation. For its part, the EU should coordinate the multiple security proposals now in circulation – including those from Iran and Russia – with the aim of drawing them into a shared diplomatic track.
With the clock ticking, these steps could still make a difference. Europe cannot afford to absorb the inevitable costs of greater conflict in the Middle East. It is time for Europeans to take a proactive approach to the crisis that protects their interests.
- Carl Bildt, former Swedish prime minister and chair of ECFR board
- Emma Bonino, former Italian minister of foreign affairs
- Alistair Burt, former UK minister of state for the Middle East at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and an MP
- Wolfgang Ischinger, ambassador chairman, Munich Security Conference; former German ambassador to the US and former deputy foreign minister
- Jean-David Levitte, former ambassador of France to the United States, UN and diplomatic adviser to presidents Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy
- Andrzej Olechowski, former Polish minister of foreign affairs
- Javier Solana, former EU high representative for the common foreign and security policy and secretary-general of NATO
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.