Two opposing coalitions in the Middle East define a rivalry that threatens to tear the region apart. As competition for dominance intensifies, the confrontation between Iran’s network of state and non-state actors, and a counter-front of traditional Western allies – centred on Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel – has become the region’s central battle line.
Building a European coalition
European officials are increasingly concerned about the destabilising activities of the emerging anti-Iran front. In early 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron warned against moves that could provoke a war with Iran. Indeed, European countries should be concerned about the way that the front is pushing back against Iran, which risks strengthening the type of Iranian behaviour it ostensibly seeks to end and plunging the Middle East into further conflict. Although European officials broadly oppose Iran’s regional manoeuvring, they also privately describe Saudi actions in Yemen, Lebanon, and Qatar as “reckless”, “irresponsible”, and “dangerous”.
As European governments struggle to stabilise countries near Europe’s southern border, they should resist the temptation to support policies that rely exclusively on confrontation with Iran. While this approach may seem an expedient way to signal support for European allies, it is likely to be ineffective at containing Iran in the region. Moreover, it is likely to backfire on Europe and its allies by spurring further violence.
Instead of backing either front across the Middle East’s new battle lines, European governments should work together to ease tensions, including through greater leadership in robust engagement with Iran to manage its most problematic regional activities. The new EU+4 (the EU, France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom) talks with Iran are a good starting point. This report outlines several proposed steps below – all of which took on greater urgency following the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.
Among European leaders, President Macron may be best placed to forge a European coalition that supports regional de-escalation. His stated position on regional developments advocating against a widening conflict with Iran, prior involvement in resolving the Lebanon crisis, and good relationship with Donald Trump and regional leaders, including Mohammed bin Salman, may give him a distinct opportunity to advance this agenda.
France should look to build broad-based European political support for this effort by assembling a group of member states interested in pursuing de-escalation in the region, including Germany, the UK, Italy, and Sweden. These countries should work closely with the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, Federica Mogherini, to mobilise the collective diplomatic and economic weight of the EU and its member states in support of such efforts.
This European coalition could look to expand on the ad hoc alliances formed in response to various crises – from de-escalating tensions in Lebanon following Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s forced resignation in Riyadh to defending the nuclear deal and attempting to defuse the hostility between Qatar and other Gulf Arab states. These ad hoc coalitions have at times included elements within US institutions such as the Pentagon, the State Department, and Congress. European leaders will need to make strong, sustained efforts to encourage and cajole President Trump and his advisers into adopting an alternative approach.
In their coalition-building efforts, European countries should also enlist the help of traditional mediators in the Gulf such as Kuwait, Oman, and perhaps even Egypt (which contributed to the resolution of the crisis that followed Hariri’s resignation). Russia also has a key role in the Middle East. In the current climate, regional actors increasingly look to Moscow as the balancing force in the region, despite remaining cautious about its ultimate goals. Europe should be wary of regional engagement with Russia, an actor whose interests do not normally align with European interest and that is likely to benefit from managed chaos in the region. Nonetheless, Europe will have to look for opportunities to work with Moscow in creating openings for regional mediation, regardless of how uncomfortable this may be given the ongoing deterioration of relations between Russia and the West.
Ultimately, states must base any viable Middle East security architecture on widening areas of convergence rather than confrontation. Unless regional actors are prepared to engage in constructive dialogue, mutual compromise, and some acknowledgment of respective interests and threat perceptions, there is unlikely to be sustained regional coordination in resolving conflicts. Towards this end, the region needs a framework for addressing instability, conflict, and long-term security challenges. A structure similar to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe could provide a venue for regional dialogue and agreements reflecting key principles on sovereignty and the use of force. If it is to hold water, this process needs to occur in the right climate. For now, though, the antagonism between regional actors will preclude efforts to create a wider superstructure, and perhaps even discredit future attempts to do so. With this in mind, Europeans should now focus on what can be realistically achieved in de-escalating tensions and building trust on a local, country-specific basis.
(1) Damage limitation and preventing inter-state war in the region
In the short term, European actors should focus on tailored efforts to resolve the localised drivers of conflict in various theatres. To achieve this, they should:
Urgently facilitate a de-escalation mechanism between Iran and Israel in Syria: An immediate priority should be to use diplomatic channels to Iran to clearly state Israeli red lines in Syria and warn of the consequences of Tehran continuing to cross them. This should include European engagement with Russia – which has close ties to, and considerable influence on, all sides. Europeans should push for an Israeli-Iranian modus vivendi in Syria (which the US seems uninterested in). This requires sensitivity to legitimate Israeli security concerns and red lines on the presence of Iranian proxies in the Golan Heights, as well as Iran’s attempts to entrench its forces in Syria in the long term. But Europeans should also make clear to Israeli leaders (along with their American colleagues) that they cannot realistically drive the Iranians out of Syria.
Members of the EU that have previously acted as a conduit between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, such as Germany, should develop their limited channels to the parties they have already established. In the Syrian-held part of the Golan Heights, Europe could also call for the return of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) as soon as is feasible. Like the United Nations Interim Force In Lebanon, UNDOF has provided important channels for communication and deconfliction between the sides, despite Israel’s traditional scepticism of third-party observation forces.
Prevent deepening Saudi-Iran conflict in Yemen: Ongoing European talks with Iran on regional issues should continue to stress the urgency of ending Houthi missile attacks on Saudi Arabia and the limitations such actions place on improving broader Europe-Iran relations.
Despite their tough rhetoric, the Saudis need a way out of the Yemen conflict. In this, Iran’s relatively small-scale commitment to the war provides a possible opening. Divisions within the GCC and US political disengagement also create a void that Europeans might fill by lending new momentum to UN diplomacy on Yemen (now led by UN envoy Martin Griffiths, a British national). Working with the UN and through enhanced engagement with local actors, Europeans should build functional relationships with key factions on the ground while serving as a bridge between international and regional actors. Doing so would help create a peace process that accommodates the red lines of various parties.
Insulate Lebanon: Europe should proactively defend Lebanese stability from regional conflicts. This means continuing to strongly push back against any external action that disrupts the country’s sensitive political balance. European diplomats should inform Israel, Iran, and Saudi Arabia that any steps that risk destabilising Lebanon will result in European political backlash. Israel and Saudi Arabia have legitimate concerns about Hezbollah’s co-optation of the Lebanese state, but the preservation of the current political balance of power remains the sine qua non of Lebanon’s stability. It is also important to ensuring calm on Israel’s northern border. Similarly, European diplomats should inform Iran that the construction of new military infrastructure in Lebanon, which would alter the fragile balance of power there, is equally unacceptable. Europeans should continue their efforts to strengthen the Lebanese armed forces’ role as a centrally controlled counterweight to Hezbollah.
Support progress in Iraq: Europeans should nurture Riyadh’s renewed engagement with the government in Baghdad and other Iraqi actors, which stands in stark contrast to its more aggressive stance elsewhere. Europeans should build on the defeat of the Islamic State group (ISIS) in much of Iraq by encouraging Saudi coordination with Baghdad on stabilisation efforts, the reintegration of Sunni-majority areas into national structures, and political and economic reform. Moreover, Europeans should support any effort by Baghdad to provide a platform for testing a wider regional accommodation between Tehran and Riyadh.
Rally behind regional and international efforts at post-ISIS stabilisation, helping compensate for US reluctance to do so: As the anti-ISIS struggle cuts across many regional divides (including that between Saudi Arabia and Iran), it could present an opportunity to press de-escalatory openings. With President Trump eager to reduce US military and stabilisation commitments in Syria, European states should consider appointing a high-level special envoy for post-ISIS efforts, tasked with coordinating European policy and resources, as well as demonstrating Europe’s relevance. A failure to successfully stabilise these areas will not only facilitate the re-emergence of ISIS (or a similar group) but also intensify confrontation between Iranian-backed forces and their opponents.
(2) Robust engagement with Iran on regional issues
Europe should help its regional partners address legitimate threats from Iran while preserving the space for robust engagement with Tehran. European efforts should centre on limiting the regional chaos on which Iran thrives through the measures outlined above, and on pursuing hard-nosed diplomacy with Tehran as the most realistic means to alter its calculations. Launched in Munich in February 2018 (and followed by another meeting in May), talks between Iran and the EU+4 on the Yemen conflict should be seen as a mechanism for creating constructive momentum that European countries must vigorously maintain – including by expanding the remit of the talks beyond Yemen. At a moment when tensions over the nuclear deal are likely to intensify, Europeans must not allow this accompanying political track to collapse.
Europe may have only limited diplomatic leverage over Iran, but its influence has grown due to the deterioration of US relations with Iran under Trump and the degree to which Tehran now looks to Europe as a key international partner for salvaging the nuclear deal and rejuvenating the Iranian economy. Europeans should emphasise that, without tangible progress on at least some regional issues, it will be difficult for them to resist the Trump administration’s more aggressive stance, let alone support European investment in Iran.
As part of this, European states must press Iran to initiate confidence-building measures that demonstrate its stated willingness to begin what Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif calls “security networking” among regional powers. European governments have already begun to consider imposing new sanctions on Iran for its regional behaviour if there is no constructive progress in this effort. These measures are likely to incorporate new designations linked to the IRGC’s activities in Syria and to Iran’s ballistic missiles programme.
In taking such a path, the EU must maintain a distinction between regional issues and the nuclear deal. This distinction has already become blurred due to the E3’s attempts to push through new sanctions on Iran’s regional behaviour, as part of the failed arrangement with Washington designed to maintain the US commitment to the deal. More substantively, Europe must acknowledge that, while such moves are an important signal to both regional allies and the US, they are unlikely to impose any real costs on Iran or shift its behaviour at a time when there is little interaction between European business and IRGC economic networks.
European states should also think carefully before extending the sanctions net more widely over Hezbollah in Lebanon as a means of pushing back against Iran. Europe’s current designation of the group’s military wing as a terrorist organisation, as opposed to its political wing, is an important distinction. This distinction allows for ongoing engagement with a group that remains an integral part of a post-civil war political status quo that has helped stabilise the country – even if its activities in Syria and Yemen are problematic. European states should resist US pressure to sanction the group in its entirety, and tread carefully in extending targeted sanctions to Hezbollah officials engaged in the political sphere. The failure of international attempts to undermine Hamas through isolation and sanctions, and the diplomatic handicap created by the EU’s policy of no contact with the group, should be a further warning in this regard.
Iranian missile capabilities also affect regional security. The Trump administration has pressed the EU to expand its sanctions targeting the country’s ballistic missile programme. Yet such measures are unlikely to persuade Tehran to curtail the programme, which it views as a legitimate form of deterrence against military attacks. This is especially the case in the context of increasing Western arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel. Symbolic missile-related sanctions – which Europe should see as distinct from any measures that it might take against IRGC-related bodies – are likely to damage limited European leverage. Moreover, missile-related sanctions would do little harm to Iran’s economy or to gain the support of China and Russia (as nuclear-related sanctions once did).
Instead of prioritising sanctions, European governments should increase their collaboration with the US, regional partners, and international bodies in interdicting illicit trade and transfers related to Iran’s missiles programme. They should focus on ending activity (including financial and arms-transfer mechanisms) that facilitates the proliferation of missile technology in the region.
(3) Protection of the nuclear deal
The US withdrawal from the nuclear deal is likely to have unpredictable effects on Iran’s future efforts to restore its nuclear programme. In the aftermath of Trump’s hard exit from the nuclear deal, Iran’s president has emphasised that Tehran will consider reviving its nuclear programme unless it can negotiate an arrangement with Europe, China, and Russia that provides some economic benefits to Iran. If the deal truly collapses, and Tehran decides to expand its nuclear-enrichment capacity, this is likely to boost support for US or Israeli military strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities, potentially escalating regional conflicts. The full collapse of the nuclear deal would also likely strengthen support for those in Iran who pursue aggressive regional policies and favour a more confrontational posture on the US military presence in the Middle East.
As such, Europeans must now focus their efforts on finding a mechanism with other parties to the nuclear agreement that can hold elements of the deal together without US participation. Europe, together with China and Russia, could offer Iran economic, political, and security incentives to stick to its most significant nuclear-related obligations and, as far as possible, protect European companies from the enforcement of US secondary sanctions. This will not be easy: it is unclear whether Iran would accept such a package given the centrality of the US to the JCPOA, as well as America’s global economic sway and the impact of US secondary sanctions on non-US companies. European governments will need to find a way to separate their positions on the nuclear deal from that of the US without causing a major transatlantic confrontation on sanctions and trade.
To do so, the EU should now press the US for political and legal guarantees such as sanction waivers and exemptions. These measures would prevent – or, at least, reduce – the enforcement of US secondary sanctions in areas of strategic importance for Europe, such as energy, infrastructure, aviation, and automobiles. In parallel, European governments should also look to find bridging solutions to maintain banking connections with Iran – even if at a much-reduced level.
European leaders should reject further negotiation between the E3 and the US administration on a broader framework on Iran policy, including the prospect of further EU sanctions targeting Iran – unless the Trump administration makes significant adjustments to minimise the enforcement of US secondary sanctions targeting European companies that do business with Iran. Towards this end, EU member states should begin consultations on counter-measures against the US. European leaders should press this issue very hard with the Trump administration, making clear that it is an issue critical to the transatlantic relationship, as well as to ongoing cooperation on regional issues in the Middle East.
(4) Firm messaging with allies
Europe should offer strong support to the Saudi development and economic reform measures led by Mohammed bin Salman. However, European countries – particularly the UK and France, which engage in extensive military and security cooperation with Gulf Arab states – should emphasise to Saudi Arabia and the UAE the negative repercussions of some elements of their fight against Tehran. Europeans should carefully consider their role in actively facilitating destabilising Saudi and Emirati activity. Germany’s recent decision to end the sale of arms that could be used in the Yemen conflict provides an example that other European states should follow if there is no progress on this front. These sales are an important element of the European security relationship with regional actors. While Europeans are right to claim that the transactions provide an opportunity to constructively shape regional security policy and advance important shared interests, this argument only holds true if Europeans are willing to limit sales where these weapons feed conflict and instability.
As part of this approach, European actors should contest Israeli and Saudi assertions that Europe has taken Iran’s side, which is a major regional misperception. It is important for European countries to directly acknowledge Gulf Arab states’ concerns and highlight the many ways in which this concern is translated into material support. But they should also lay out Iranian sensitivities to their Saudi and Israeli interlocutors, as well as the calculations that underpin Iran’s foreign policy – which stem from not only ideology but also genuine security concerns.
Believing it has the Trump administration’s backing, Saudi Arabia will be disinclined to de-escalate. But Europeans must continue to make the case for a shift in approach. The failure of the country’s confrontational strategy in Yemen and Lebanon, the likelihood that Trump will ultimately disappoint Riyadh, and the pressure of domestic reform all point to the need for Saudi Arabia to stand down – a move Europeans should actively encourage.
Mobilising a European front
This report argues that the anti-Iran front’s excessively aggressive approach is likely to create deeper regional instability, ultimately playing to the country’s strengths. Indeed, Iran’s influence has grown across the Middle East – from Syria to Yemen – and it has survived decades of sanctions, fending off a militarily superior Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Most dangerously for Europe – given the complex entwinement of actors in Middle East conflicts – the confrontational approach may also hasten the transformation of a series of largely localised proxy conflicts between Saudi- and Iranian-backed groups into a broader inter-state war.
Rather than support efforts to further escalate regional tensions, Europeans should proactively advance a process that moves the region in the opposite direction, reducing tensions and dangerous points of friction. This would play to Europeans’ strength: while Europe is not a security player to the same degree as the US or Russia, it has significant collective leverage and capability in the Middle East, as well as access to all the main players there. These factors make it a critical conduit for helping stabilise and secure the region.
 Adam Baron, “The Importance of Being Envoy: Advice to the new UN Representative to Yemen”, ECFR, 11 April 2018, available at www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_advice_to_the_new_un_representativ_martin_griffiths.
 Mohammad Javad Zarif, “Iran can set a post-Isis security policy for the region”, Financial Times, 21 January 2018, available at https://www.ft.com/content/c0b6bc36-fead-11e7-9650-9c0ad2d7c5b5.
 ECFR interviews with European officials, April 2018.
 In 2011, the EU introduced sanctions targeting the IRGC, which remain in force despite the removal of nuclear-related EU sanctions. See European Council, “EU restrictive measures against Iran”, http://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/policies/sanctions/iran/.
 For recommendations on this, see Ellie Geranmayeh, “Europe Must Fight to Preserve the Iran Deal”, Foreign Policy, 23 January 2018, available at: http://foreignpolicy.com/2018/01/23/europe-must-fight-to-preserve-the-iran-deal.
 For more on this, see “After Trump’s Iran decision, Time for Europe to step up”, ECFR, 9 May 2018, https://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_after_trump_iran_decision_time_for_europe_to_step_up.