Middle East rivalries threaten Europe

Middle East rivalries threaten Europe
6 min read
23 October, 2018
Iran and Saudi Arabia are fiercely competing for each other in every possible domain, transferring the rivalry to almost every corner of the Middle East and beyond, writes Stasa Salacanin.
The Iran-Saudi rivalry has been one of the key conflict drivers in the Middle East
The archenemies Iran and Saudi Arabia are battling for supremacy in the Middle East and are carrying out their struggle in proxy wars in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. 

The cold war between the two countries has gone so far that countries are fiercely competing for each other in almost every possible domain, transferring the rivalry to almost every corner of the Middle East and beyond. Such a trend is already posing a challenge to Europeans interests and security. 

Despite ever louder calls for the greater engagement in the Middle East, European diplomatic capacity and its foreign policy reach in the region is therefore highly debatable.

With few exceptions, the EU has not played a proactive foreign policy role in the Middle East, whether in the Libyan, Syrian, Yemeni, or Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The battle for dominance has ravaged the Middle East

The Saudi-Iran rivalry has been one of the key conflict drivers in the Middle East, including the growing violence along Sunni-Shia lines. Their proxy battles and struggle over leadership of the Muslim world.

Rivalry stems from dynamic power shifts in the Middle East, partly triggered by foreign interventionism that lead state and non-state actors to pursue their interests by manipulating religious sentiments.

Both countries see themselves as indisputable leaders of their religious denominations-Iran claims to represent the world's Shia and Saudi Arabia claims to represent its Sunnis, giving the rivalry amplified religious tone, which makes this religious division much more violent.

Europeans so far refused to openly take a side in this conflict although they have forged much closer commercial and security ties with Iranian opponents. European key states expressed their concern over ever about Tehran's regional policies. 

They strongly object to what they perceive as Iran's destabilising role in Syria, as well as the backing of Shia militias in Lebanon and Iraq, support for Houthi fighters in Yemen. Over the past decade, Iran successfully created a wide net of state and non-state regional allies mostly among the Shia population.   

Read also: Bahrain 'should rebuild relationship' with Shia population

According to the views of Julien Barnes-Dacey, Ellie Geranmayeh and Hugh Lovatt in their essay  The Middle East's new battle lines, Iran – unable to follow the arms race with Saudi led block of states and Israel – "has adopted asymmetric tactics to address this power imbalance, using allies such as Hizballah to retain the ability to strike its enemies at range and thereby deter direct attacks. It has also maintained a missile programme that acts as another deterrent against direct attack by more heavily armed regional foes." 

Increased Iran's regional influence has greatly contributed to the cautious rapprochement between the Sunni block of states and Israel which both share common belief that Iran must be confronted through force.

Their position has been greatly encouraged by present US administration and US president Trump who sees Iran as the main threat to US regional order. Anti-Iran Sunni block also welcomed the collapse of Iranian nuclear deal understanding it as a signal to even counter Iran.  

Nevertheless, Europe has refused to follow hard-line stance toward Iran and adopt US approach which would certainly further complicate the situation leading to even greater instability in the region.

Read also: China-US trade war impact on the Middle East

Is Europe powerless?

So, while Europeans share Arabic and Israeli concerns over Iranian growing influence and gains in the region, they have been rather sceptical about the methods and policies of the anti-Iran block, especially in the case of war in Yemen.

As a matter of fact, European security challenges are in many ways linked to the Middle Eastern conflicts and ever greater disagreements with US administration especially after failed attempt to prevent US unilateral decision to walk away from Iranian nuclear deal.

In order to respond to these challenges, many suggest that Europe has to redefine its positions and play a more effective role in defusing regional tensions. But the question remains does Europe has enough potential to achieve this?

According to Thierry Coville, a Research Fellow at IRIS (French research centre for international and strategic studies) and Professor of economics in Novancia Business School belonging to the Paris Chamber of Commerce, this is possible in the long term. In the short term, the main European objective is to preserve the JCPOA to avoid the worst case scenario of Iran getting out of the deal. 

"I see the European strategy with the JCPOA as a test for European foreign policy in the region. If the EU is able to maintain Iran in the deal, that would be the sign that the EU starts to be an important actor in the region. Later on, it will be possible to start talking with Iran on other issues like its ballistic programme or Iran role in the region," he told The New Arab.

But so far Europe has been rather powerless and inefficient "broker" in the region. This is rather surprising, given the interdependence between Europe and the Middle East and their geographic proximity. Moreover, the ongoing violence in the region has already deeply affected Europe, through refugee flows and the spread of extremism threatens its basic security and declared values.

Consequently, these events have also caused tectonic changes in European social and political landscape, setting a fertile ground for the rise of populist, far-right and neo-fascist movements and political parties in almost every corner of the continent.

Read also: An 'Arab NATO' united against Iran is easier said than done

The lack of political will to play a more leading role in the region as well as Europe's Unclear and dubious foreign policy toward the Middle East and its problems significantly harms the union's credibility in the region.

It does not seem that Europe has tried very hard to act as a mediator between Iran and Saudi Arabia or in the case of any other Middle Eastern hotspots. According to Coville, there was some hope that the new French president will go for a more balanced policy towards Iran and Saudi Arabia. We did not see much of this until now as France seems still much closer to Saudi Arabia.

But he is convinced that this could change if the EU demonstrates its ability to "save" the JCPOA. The moderates in Iran still see Europe as player strong enough to withstand heavy pressure from the US and maintain economic relations with Iran and save the deal.  

This could serve as a stepping stone for its further actions, becoming a real broker of peace between Iran and Saudi Arabia. After all, unlike the US, Europe has one clear advantage that can materialise and score important points: their access to all regional actors.

But if Europe fails to take decisive action it will be easily outpaced by other players such as Russia, Turkey and China. Finally, the lack of political courage to cope with high tensions in the Middle East could cause fundamental consequences at home.

Stasa Salacanin is a freelance journalist who has written extensively on Middle Eastern affairs, trade and political relations, Syria and Yemen, terrorism and defence.