A candid framework for Europeans to regain influence in the Persian Gulf

A candid framework for Europeans to regain influence in the Persian Gulf

In attempting to ease tensions in the Persian Gulf, Europeans should engage the six Gulf states of the Gulf Cooperation Council in discussions on regional security and non-proliferation.

Against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic which has strained the healthcare resources of Europe, Iran and the United States, all pre-existing geopolitical tensions are remerging. Tensions have arisen between Washington and Tehran, particularly regarding the Trump administration’s sanctions against Iran. Recently, the US federal government placed sanctions on five Iranian ship captains who delivered 1.5 million barrels of Iranian gasoline to Venezuela.

The Trump administration is also seeking to extend a United Nations arms embargo that is due to expire in October. Iran subsequently expressed that it will withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action if the UN security council agrees to Washington’s demands. European countries to the JCPOA, France Germany and the United Kingdom, collectively known as the E3, should work to make Donald Trump understand that a diplomatic showdown with Iran carries significant risk since Russia and China, both veto-wielding members of the Security Council, will not support this measure.

This is important considering Donald Trump’s maximum pressure policy on Iran and its allies, has implications for Europe’s security and economic interests. The President’s coercive policy towards the Iranian regime, in particular the ill-considered decision in January to eliminate the leader of the foreign wing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the deputy military commander of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, has endangered the international community’s fight against the remnants of the so-called terrorist group ‘Islamic State’.

As European security interests are directly affected by the implications of the American leader’s abrupt strategy towards the Iranian regime, the E3 must be proactive in working to keep the JCPOA alive and easing geopolitical tensions in the Persian Gulf. This threat is real given that the current Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Salman has in the past threatened to develop nuclear weapons in response to Iran’s nuclear proliferation.

Europeans should direct their diplomatic efforts towards the monarchies of the Arab Gulf. Pursuing this approach will show that Europeans are ready to sow the seeds of the current nuclear agreement, which has failed to draw the capitals of the Arab Gulf into the debate on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and bring about a security dialogue between Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council powers.

The likelihood of a Joe Biden administration in 2021 should give Europeans hope and optimism that nuclear proliferation aspirations between Iran and Saudi Arabia will cease.  

Europeans and GCC powers share two essential convergences regarding Iran. The first is to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon; the second is to avoid a full-scale interstate war involving Iran.

Whilst both parties share mutual interests, uniting Gulf monarchies faces difficulties, given the reservations Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates maintain with Qatar. Tensions have increased considerably following the imposition of a political boycott and economic embargo imposed on Qatar by both GCC monarchies in 2017. Saudi Arabia and the UAE accuse the Al Thani monarchy of supporting Islamic political movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood during the Arab Spring crisis and of meddling in their internal affairs.  

Europeans should seek to bring the three Gulf states to overcome their existing differences in the interest of de-escalating geopolitical tensions. The three GCC monarchies are well aware that heightened regional geopolitical tensions run counter to their strategic interests. In 2019, the stability in the Persian Gulf was hampered by the sabotage of six tankers loaded with crude oil from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Regional instability was also undermined by the shooting down of a $200 million US Global Hawk High Altitude surveillance drone and attacks on Aramco’s oil facilities. These events subsequently affected GCC monarchies oil supplies and economic production, given that up to 80 percent of their national budgets depend on oil exports.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were particularly disappointed by the American retrenchment following these events, which led both monarchies to slowly realise the unreliability of the American security umbrella. Both monarchies expected to count on U.S military deterrence, especially in the aftermath of the Aramco attacks.

Since this has not materialized, Saudi Arabia and the UAE  have sought to seize the opportunity by at least trying to defuse tensions with Iran by engaging in behind-the-scenes discussions and exchanges of messages with the Iranian regime.

The E3 should take the opportunity to consolidate these tactical shifts. To achieve this, European countries should pursue active bilateralism with the GCC monarchies. Germany has strong trade links with Saudi Arabia and Qatar; France and the UK have strong commercial and military ties with the UAE, Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait. A delegation of European representatives should therefore be mobilised to take forward discussions with their Gulf counterparts.

As part of this initiative, E3 officials should make it clear to their GCC counterparts, particularly Saudi Arabia, that further uranium enrichment will fuel geopolitical tensions and run counter to their efforts to attract foreign direct investment to diversify and transform their economies. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in particular, is seeking to attract foreign investors to invest in major projects, including a $500 billion solar-powered, robot-run city of the future. Europeans should stress that increased geopolitical instability will prevent investors from engaging in such projects. The E3 should therefore push the GCC monarchies to adopt universal non-proliferation standards and seek to agree on provisions of the JCPOA, in particular limits on domestic uranium enrichment and the abandonment of fuel reprocessing.

Consideration should also be given to the establishment of a loose security forum to enable confidence-building between the countries of the region. To achieve this, Europeans should work with Oman and Kuwait, which have the confidence of Saudi Arabia and Iran. Efforts should be directed towards laying the foundations for a security dialogue between the two regional powers. Consideration should be given to developing a system for de-escalating regional disputes and taking the proposal to Riyadh and Tehran. Efforts should diligently engage with working towards requiring commitment by both capitals to work towards de-escalating tensions in Yemen and jointly engaging in the reconstruction and stabilisation of Iraq.

All in all, pursuing this framework will strengthen European influence in the Persian Gulf.  

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Insider.

Kareem Salem

Kareem Salem is a recent graduate with a Masters in International Relations from the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. His research interests are focussed on transatlantic relations and European foreign policy.