'The EU has to invest more to avoid further escalation of the existing crises.' - An interview on the US-Iran conflict

Interview

After the targeted assassination of Iran’s highest General Qassem Soleimani by the US on Friday 3rd January 2020 in Iraq, the already very strained situation between the US and Iran, became even more critical. 

Head of Global Transformation Programme at Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung Brussels European Union, Anna Schwarz, spoke to MEP Hannah Neumann (Greens/EFA) about how the EU is to react to the further escalating conflict between the US and Iran.

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Anna Schwarz: Commission President Ursula von der Leyen urged for the immediate stop of use of weapons ‘to give space for dialogue’ on last Wednesday. What role can the EU play in facilitating this dialogue?

Hannah Neumann: Ursula von der Leyen said from the very beginning, that her commission would be a geopolitical commission. The current situation takes this declaration to a first test. In recent years, the EU had little influence in the Middle East, besides brokering the nuclear deal with Iran. It remains to be seen, if this will change now. The potential is there. 

The EU is still seen as an honest broker and thus has the chance to step in as a mediator and ensure further steps to de-escalate the situation. At the moment, Brussels talks to the US and Iran as well as to other regional powers, works through shuttle diplomacy and it tries to revive the idea of a regional conference. Therefore, I support proposals that EU representatives should hold urgent meetings with the Iranian government, including with the prospect of a high-level delegation visit in Teheran, as well as meetings with other governments in the region. I really think they should be in the region now and show, how much they care. 

However, in order to act as honest broker, it is crucial that the EU is not perceived as partisan. This involves not shying away from criticism of either side. The statement of the EU High Representative/Vice President, Josep Borrell, earlier this week constituted a well-balanced statement expressing concerns about military actions by Iran and the US. Unfortunately, it was followed by a rather one-sided statement of the E3 (UK, France and Germany) criticising only the Iranian side that was then echoed by Ursula von der Leyen once more. But only a strong and independent EU can have a de-escalating impact on the situation. Something that is urgently needed.

Which other measures should be taken by the EU and its Member States to prevent a continuing escalation of the conflict between the US and Iran?

At the moment, there is much relieve that the Iranian bombardment of military bases in Iraq in response to the killing of Qassem Soleimani did not cause any casualties; allowing the US to refrain from further military action. However, this may just be a short cool-off period. We are far from a stable solution. The old conflicts that prompted the escalation are running deep and are by no means resolved. 

This is why the EU has to make the most of the current phase of de-escalation and establish precautionary mechanisms for the future. In the short term, the EU should support the creation of a dispute settlement mechanism that enables both sides to interact in the case of a new escalation through an intermediary and a clearly defined process. Something like the Washington-Moscow hotline that existed during the Cold War with a built-in resolution capacity. A possible medium-term measure could also be borrowed from the Cold War experience, namely the establishment of a Helsinki process. This would further allow a strong involvement of regional actors and may lead to de-escalation beyond the immediate standoff between the US and Iran. 

Another issue remaining is the fact, that the EU is perceived as a toothless tiger by many in the region. The Iranians, for example, need credible guarantees that engaging in dialogue will actually lead to tangible improvements. The country's population has been hit very hard by Washington's economic sanctions, and the EU so far has found no measures to offset any negative impact. 

Given the influence the Iranian government has in several countries of the region – namely Iraq, Lebanon and Syria – the risk of a spill-over effect of the escalation exists. What influence should and could the EU take to prevent such an extension of the conflict?

Conflict resolution works better, the more stakeholders are involved. This is the case for international actors, like Russia and China, as well as for regional actors. The escalation between US and Iran has send quite a shock wave through the region. Many countries, including those in the Gulf and Israel have feared to be drawn into this military confrontation. This opens a window of opportunity for dialogue in the region. The EU should not let this window pass, and start and facilitate regional dialogue in close cooperation with other mediating actors, such as Kuwait or Oman.

As for EU's role in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, it seems obvious that the EU has to invest more than it previously did to avoid further escalation of the existing crises. Without a political transition process, EU action in Syria will remain limited largely to humanitarian aid. Therefore, long term support of Syrian civil society actors, in particular in exile, will remain crucial. In Lebanon, the protest movement has blown some fresh air into the face of the corrupt political elite during past months. However, the political reforms that protesters called for, are not in sight and the country is close to a financial collapse. Such a combination of political and economic crisis would be a fertile ground for radical political forces. Therefore, key tasks for the EU include short-term financial support and assistance with political reforms.

As for Iraq, it is of utmost importance that the country is not turned into the battleground of a US-Iran proxy war. An instant withdrawal of US troops would create a void that Iran is more than willing to fill. The population is highly divided on this issue and the EU should ensure that the government will not take any short-sighted decisions here. For a peaceful future of Iraq, it is important to heal the wounds of the many violent conflicts and the EU should be more forthcoming to assist in conflict resolution measures. Further, the already existing EU advisory mission should boost its impact and help to establish a reformed security sector that is able to act independently of foreign influence and respects international standards. Finally, the EU should offer itself as mediator between the government and the protest movement that has been calling for political reforms and against corruption in the country and assist with reform measures. However, there is still a long way to go. 

One of the Iranian government’s reactions to the assassination was to announce another step back from its commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal and to no longer limit the enrichment of uranium. Which options of action does the EU have to preserve the nuclear deal?

One of Tehran’s first reactions to the assassination of its country’s number 2 was to declare that it feels no longer bound by the provisions of the nuclear deal. A step that had been planned already prior to the lethal incident. However, the nuclear deal is not yet dead. The country is still allowing for inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and so far, they have not detected any increased enrichment activity on the Iranian side since last week. 

Saving the Iran nuclear deal is essential for the EU if it wants to be seen as a successful negotiator in the region. The meticulously negotiated treaty is the pride of joint EU diplomacy, and it managed to assemble China and Russia among its signatories. Further, it still is the only way to ensure that Iran does not produce a nuclear bomb – which would open Pandora’s box in the region. Therefore, it is of utmost importance that INSTEX, the system to counterbalance US sanctions against European companies dealing with Iran, will become appropriately resourced and a functioning mechanism to strengthen the deal. The announcement that INSTEX chief Michael Bock is to visit Iran in January is a good sign. Things are complicated in the region and little steps forward can be already huge achievements.