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European states have bowed to US pressure on Iran

A recent communique from France, Germany and the UK blames Tehran for escalating tensions in the region, instead of the real culprit: Washington
German Chancellor Angela Merkel meets Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York on 24 September (Handout/Iranian Presidency/AFP)

If an unaware observer had to get an idea of the enduring dispute between Iran and the international community by reading the joint communique that France, Germany and the UK issued on 23 September, she would have easily drawn several conclusions. 

These would include that Iran some time ago signed an international agreement to limit its nuclear programme; that the deal was unanimously ratified by the UN Security Council; that Iran subsequently began to violate it; and that instead of reconsidering its position, Iran made further provocations by attacking Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities on 14 September, sowing panic in the region and turmoil in the international energy markets.

Mistaken assumptions

Although always sceptical about a positive European role on the matter, I recently argued about its potential added value in decreasing tensions, which could come not from an alignment with the US, but only by providing a balancing role among all players. 

Scepticism proved justified. Despite recent appreciable efforts to restart dialogue, in particular by French President Emmanuel Macron, this joint declaration has everything but a balancing role. It is worth examining it word by word, to highlight some mistaken assumptions that we could have expected from the US, but not from top European players.

Dealing with the dire situation in the region only through the prism of stability ... risks sending a message that could be fatally misunderstood

The communique notes: “We, the leaders of France, Germany and the United Kingdom, recall our shared common security interests, in particular upholding the global non-proliferation regime and preserving stability in the Middle East.”

Understandable. Yet, drafted in such a way and in the current political context, this sentence gives the impression that those interests are primarily linked to the maintenance of the non-proliferation regime in the region and to the preservation of stability. 

Of course, counterproliferation is crucial, especially in volatile area such as the Middle East; yet, such a commitment would sound more credible if it addressed all countries in the region, including those that already possess nuclear weapons and have thus far refused to sign the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons

Moral zeal

Moreover, no explanation is offered for what the term “stability” should mean in the current circumstances. Are these three countries arguing that those who already possess nuclear weapons in the region are entitled to keep them, while other countries are not? If so, it would be better to have the courage to claim this openly and clearly. 

Furthermore, dealing with the dire situation in the region only through the prism of stability - rather than the promotion of peace and justice - risks sending a message that could be largely, and fatally, misunderstood.

The communique goes on to note: “We condemn in the strongest terms the attacks on oil facilities on Saudi territory … and reaffirm … our full solidarity with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”

French President Emmanuel Macron addresses the UN on 24 September in New York (AFP)
French President Emmanuel Macron addresses the UN on 24 September in New York (AFP)

Given that such attacks fortunately did not cause any human loss, this moral zeal could have been far more credible had it been manifested in an equally solemn way with regards to the many civilian casualties of the ongoing conflict in Yemen. 

“It is clear to us that Iran bears responsibility for this attack,” the statement adds. “There is no other plausible explanation.” 

Regrettably, this claim is apparently based only on reasoning, rather than strong evidence provided by reliable intelligence. Taking a sharp political position on this basis could be risky. Given recent unfortunate precedents in the region, more evidence and less assumption would have been desirable.

The Houthis have claimed responsibility for the attacks, and nothing conclusive has been presented to disprove their assertion.

Economic blockade

“These attacks may have been against Saudi Arabia but they concern all countries and increase the risk of a major conflict,” the communique states.

True. Still, the public also deserves an explanation as to why an attack on Saudi Arabia would have such dire consequences, while the ongoing attacks in Yemen, or in Syria, do not provoke the same apprehension.

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It goes on to note: “The attacks also highlight the necessity of de-escalation in the region through sustained diplomatic efforts and engagement with all parties.”

This is undeniable, but to achieve a successful de-escalation in the Middle East, it is necessary to be aware of the causes of the escalation. The problems did not begin with the attacks on the Saudi oil facilities or on the tankers in the Gulf earlier this year, but with the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018 - which also violated UN Security Council Resolution 2231 - and its harsh sanctions against Iran, which amount to an economic blockade. This is an act of war, according to international law.

A correct connection between causes and effects of events is crucial to deal effectively with them.

The need for balance

“We urge Iran once again to reverse its decisions to reduce compliance with the deal and to adhere fully to its commitments under it,” the communique states.

It would have been much better if this exhortation had been preceded by a similar request to the US to reverse its 2018 withdrawal from the deal. While this probably would have gone nowhere, at least it would have shown a more balanced approach, a crucial prerequisite (except for the Western world, apparently) for anybody legitimately aspiring to a mediating role.

It would be easy to expect this from UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, but far less so from Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel

The joint statement also contains a bit of humour - although it’s doubtful it would be perceived as such in Tehran - when it notes that the three countries “reiterate our conviction that the time has come for Iran to accept negotiation on a long-term framework for its nuclear programme”.

For the unaware observer evoked at the beginning, Iran accepted such a negotiation years ago, reaching a positive conclusion with the 2015 nuclear deal - an agreement with which, until earlier this year, Iran had fully complied, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The 23 September joint statement confirmed my original suspicion: that the UK, France and Germany have finally bowed to the US position. It would be easy to expect this from UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, but far less so from Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Marco Carnelos
Marco Carnelos is a former Italian diplomat. He has been assigned to Somalia, Australia and the United Nations. He has served in the foreign policy staff of three Italian prime ministers between 1995 and 2011. More recently he has been Middle East Peace Process Coordinator Special Envoy for Syria for the Italian government and, until November 2017, ambassador of Italy to Iraq.