The Middle East Shift - EU's Role in Repairing the Imbalance of Power

by Fulvio Martusciello, Member of European Parliament, European People’s Party, and Jenny Cassen, political analyst based in Brussels

While President Trump's visit marked a new beginning of cooperation between the United States and Sunni Arab powers in an attempt to achieve a broader peace in the Middle East, the European Union has still been on the sidelines, waiting for US actions to play out. The importance of the EU articulating its own position only increased with the very deep crisis in the Gulf, in which the Saudi government and its Emirati, Bahraini, and Egyptian allies are pressing Qatar to give up on its funding of terror.

While the important issue of Qatar is addressed by a range of regional and international actors, perhaps one way the EU can contribute to the struggle against terrorism is to maintain a more robust role in the struggle to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. After all, the P5+1 countries have an agreement with Iran in order to curb the advancement of their nuclear capabilities. There could be no bigger game changer than a nuclear Iran, and the EU has a say in whether Iran will get away with any breach of the Iran deal signed back in 2015.

Another major game changer is the land corridor that Iran is creating through Sunni territory stretching up until Syria and Lebanon towards Iran's proxies, Shi'ite terror groups such as Hezbollah. The corridor goes up to Israel's border.

This exposes a conclusion that most of us are afraid to reach: The Iran deal hasn't worked so much to our advantage thus far, and has created an imbalance of power in the region. Perhaps that is where President Trump's visit to Saudi Arabia comes in: as a clear effort to rectify this imbalance of power, which was caused by the former American administration. Former U.S. President Obama indeed failed to reach a better deal, and did not effectively navigate between the language of peace and language of war. Subsequently, he took the military option off the table, leading the Iranians to believe that the Americans need the deal more than they do. Luckily, voices concerned about the deal — in the U.S., the Gulf states, and Israel — strengthened the P5+1 countries to some extent and may have prevented Iran from making even further demands, afraid of losing this great opportunity. In other words, it could have been worse.

It is fitting to mention in this context that President Trump's visit to the Middle East also included a visit to Israel, reflecting his desire to address the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as part of his broader regional vision.

Meanwhile, a new positive element has arisen: the appointment of the new Saudi heir, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, whose influence has been tremendous on foreign affairs, even before his official appointment. He has worked hard to counter Iran and terror groups, from the Muslim Brotherhood to Hezbollah, and to curb Russian influence in the region. In fact, he was the driving force behind the pressure on Egypt and Jordan to cease their support to the Russians.

Voices around the world are pointing to the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 as basis to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. It would be a peace that gives the Palestinians a state and compensation for their lost homes and in return gives Israel normal relations with its Arab neighbours. On the one hand, peace with Israel's neighbours is not quite a new concept, because Israel has signed peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan and resumed supposedly friendly relations. However, in reality, these relations cannot be described as friendly considering that the population of both Jordan and Egypt haven't changed their minds about Israel. In practice, Israelis are not welcome in these countries, and so it leads us to rethink what "normalisation" actually means. Israel is required by the Arab Peace Initiative to give up on its vital security borders in order to achieve "normalisation". There is nothing there to indicate that this will lead to real normalisation, it would rather lead to a situation of no hostility between governments and maybe to a more open economic (and military) cooperation.

Ultimately, there is no better hope for Israel than to achieve real normalisation with its neighbours.

In this course of events, the EU should find the right way to assist in this broader peace. There are currently three ways to repair the imbalance of power in the Middle East. First, the EU has to push for a proper renegotiation of the Iran deal. Second, the EU should play a role in preventing Iran from creating this lethal land corridor capable of inflating the whole region. And last, the EU should assist President Trump in creating a broader peace in the region, transcending the territories between the sea and the Jordan valley. The EU has the opportunity to contribute to the new Middle East shift of power. Whether the EU will want to play an important role in this shift remains to be seen.