The opening of the new decade saw a truly roaring development – an escalation in the Middle East as a result of high-tension relations between the United States and Iran. Maintaining stability in the Middle East is of particular importance to Europeans as a disrupted region might provoke another wave of migration, an infamously polarizing challenge for the European Union, and increase security threats in the region as well as globally – particularly with the deteriorating deal on Iran’s nuclear program. The new Commission, in power since December and which had called for “more Europe in the world”, suddenly found itself facing an intensifying conflict. However, the opportunity to assume the role of a “truly geopolitical Commission” and speak with a strong united voice came close to being wasted.
Since the US-staged coup overthrowing the Iranian government in 1953 and the subsequent Iranian Revolution of 1979, relations between the United States and Iran have produced numerous high-risk events and conflicts. In 2002, President George W. Bush listed Iran as one of the “Axis of Evil” states. President Obama’s attempts at rapprochement represented a break in the ever-worsening trend of the situation. Initiatives launched under the Obama Administration opened a door for Europeans to insert influence over the situation in the region. During the negotiations of the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), the European Union and Germany, along with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the UK, and the USA), achieved to restrict the Iranian nuclear program eliminating the possibility of producing nuclear weapons. An agreement was finally reached in 2015, offering Iran a lifting of selected sanctions.
The deal did not only represent a means of ensuring that Iran does not breach the set commitments regarding its nuclear program, but it also proved that multilateral diplomatic effort can be fruitful. In contemporary global politics, multilateralism and exhausting diplomacy have become scarce. However, the European Union relies on such principles and with the rise of protectionist and nationalist tendencies in the world arena, the Union effectively remains as the last major polity standing up for a system based on these principles. A major test of this world view began with the entrance of Donald Trump into the White House and his commitment to withdraw from the JCPOA and impose further sanctions on Iran.
Recent events have demonstrated how tense these relations are. In late December 2019, a military base located in Iraq, where both Iraqi and American military personnel operate, was targeted in a missile attack which, according to the United States, was carried out by an Iranian-backed militia group. In reaction to the attack which resulted in several wounded and the death of an American member of personnel, the United States conducted an airstrike against the militia group, killing dozens of fighters. The US Embassy in Iraq was then stormed by Iranian-backed militia groups, further escalating the situation. This ultimately led to the killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani on January 3 in an American airstrike, which effectively eliminated the second most powerful person in Iran. Such events brought tensions to a new high point: Iran reacted by launching several missiles targeting an Iraqi base with American personnel, causing relatively minor damage and injuries.
With both security and the above-mentioned principles at stake, the European Union acknowledges what strategic importance this region holds. However, when the world found itself at a brink of a major military conflict between the United States and Iran, no words were coming from the head of the new ‘geopolitical’ Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. Instead, an unexpected voice condemned the escalation just hours after the airstrike that killed Soleimani: the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, stating that “further escalation must be avoided at all cost”. Michel’s role involves coordinating the positions of the 28 (soon to be 27) national governments, hence the surprise about his quick and clear call for de-escalation. The man representing the European Union in foreign affairs, Josep Borrell, also addressed the developments the following evening, warning that “another crisis risks jeopardizing years of efforts to stabilise Iraq” and indeed the credibility of the approach promoted by the Union – negotiation and cooperation within a multilateral framework.
A reaction directly from the Commission President von der Leyen came more than three days after the crucial attack. She emphasised that “from a European viewpoint, it is important for Iran to return to the nuclear deal. We have to convince Iran that it’s also in its own interest” – responding to Iran’s announcement that it intends to expand its nuclear program. The multifaced reaction of the Union appeared drowned in the array of reactions independently declared by national governments – a pattern common to any foreign-policy stance articulated by the Union. The crucial decision to trigger the Dispute Resolution Mechanism under the JCPOA was made by the governments of Germany, France and the UK. This has opened an uncertain phase with the potential to either save or sink the whole deal. It certainly provides all sides with more time to decide on the future of the hardly negotiated agreement. Perhaps it also buys some time for Europeans to wait on whether there will be a change in the White House after this November’s elections – indicating that for now, there is very little the European Union can achieve on its own with regard to crucial foreign policy issues.