France should wake up Europe about Iran

Dr. Manuel Almeida
Dr. Manuel Almeida

Dr. Manuel Almeida

By : Dr. Manuel Almeida

:: This past week, France’s foreign minister was the latest high-profile Western diplomat to tour the Gulf in search of a solution to the Qatar crisis. Jean-Yves Le Drian’s visit to Doha, Jeddah and Abu Dhabi follows those earlier this month by the US secretary of state, Germany’s foreign minister and the UK’s foreign secretary.

But as a new French foreign policy under President Emmanuel Macron begins to take shape, an even more substantial regional issue will provide a greater test to French diplomacy: Iran’s hegemonic plans. The French role in this issue is potentially even more significant given the widening rift on Iran between the US on the one hand, and key European countries and Brussels on the other.

In broad terms, the Macron doctrine seeks to restore some of France’s lost significance globally, and to provide a new lease of life to the European project. On the Middle East, an obvious priority is counterterrorism. Defeating Daesh and Al-Qaeda is perhaps the immediate goal of the new French government. But on Syria, a theater where France still sees itself as influential, the devil is in the details.

The Macron government has warned the Syrian regime and its backers that the use of chemical weapons is a red line that France will readily enforce if crossed. Yet there is a lack of clarity from Macron regarding the future of Bashar Assad, a key enabler of terrorism in the region and beyond via the manipulation of extremist groups to pursue regime goals, and the brutal, largescale repression of his own population.

Macron recently said he “never said the destitution of… Assad was a prerequisite for everything, because no one has introduced to me his legitimate successor.” These words have been interpreted as endorsing the Syrian dictator’s permanence in the post.

Paris’ priority on this front is to ensure that Syrian state institutions do not collapse, although it may look contradictory that to achieve that goal, France is — for now at least — relying on a president who has destroyed much of his own country to remain in power.

Inescapably, resolution of the Syrian crisis is closely tied to Iran’s hegemonic and expansionist plans in the region. These plans will only become more evident as Daesh accumulates defeats and territorial losses in Syria and Iraq.

With the US and Russia on the same boat on “de-escalation zones” in Syria and the fight against terrorism, there are concerns that Moscow has played the Trump administration, as happened repeatedly under former President Barack Obama.

Iran may not be seen as a direct threat to Europe, but its radical policy of overthrowing governments of neighboring countries, while committing to the murderous Assad regime and supporting armed militias across the region, should warrant serious concerns in European capitals.

Dr. Manuel Almeida

Unless there is a trade-off with Russia, for example on rolling back Iran’s presence, the announcement that the Trump administration has ended the CIA’s arms support to anti-Assad rebels will heighten these concerns. Apart from Assad, the main beneficiary of the US-Russia plan may well turn out to be Iran, which has thousands of regular forces and Shiite militias in Syria and seems to be on the verge of establishing a permanent military presence there.

While the Trump administration is increasingly hawkish on Iran, Europe has been too confident, if not delusional, about the transformational impact of the nuclear deal on Tehran’s policies. Recent developments have only emphasized the existing gap between Washington and Brussels (and Berlin) in their respective Iran policies.

Last week, immediately after confirming that Iran was legally in compliance with the nuclear deal, the Trump administration announced a new round of sanctions related to Tehran’s military and regional activities.

In sharp contrast, Europe’s lenient approach was on full display earlier this month. Responding to the US administration’s review of the nuclear deal, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini cautioned that “the nuclear deal does not belong to one country. It belongs to the international community, to the United Nations system.”

That Mogherini was standing next to Sergei Lavrov, the foreign minister of Russia — a key ally of Assad and Tehran — while cautioning the US is symptomatic of the predominant European thinking on Iran. The European position, driven primarily by trade interests and belief in the wider effects of the nuclear deal, is quite short-sighted.

Iran may not be seen as a direct threat to Europe, but its radical policy of overthrowing governments of neighboring countries, while committing to the murderous Assad regime and supporting armed militias across the region, should warrant serious concerns in European capitals.

Last month, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visited Paris to meet with Macron and Le Drian. In the coming months, Le Drian is expected to visit Tehran. A departure from the “all carrots, no sticks” approach that has characterized Europe’s policy toward Iran is long overdue. Such a shift will be introduced neither by Brussels nor Berlin, so it could only come from Paris.

:: Dr. Manuel Almeida is a consultant and political analyst focusing on the Middle East. He is the former editor of the English online edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and holds a Ph.D. in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He can be reached on Twitter: @_ManuelAlmeida.

:: Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in the Column section are their own and do not reflect RiyadhVision’s point-of-view.

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