Geopolitics in the Middle East:
by Nikola Zukalová
On 05 February 2020, the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy (AIES) and the Euro-Gulf Information Centre co-organised a public event in Vienna titled ‘Geopolitics in the Middle East and Europe’s Role.’ The discussion, moderated by Velina Tchakarova (Head of AIES), brought together Mitchell Belfer (EGIC President) and Senior Associate Fellows of AIES, Robert Cutler and Michael Tanchum, to reflect on the present and future state of affairs of European geopolitical engagement in the Middle East and into Central Asia, notably in relation to Turkey, Iran and Libya and other external actors such as Russia, China and the United States.
Mitchell Belfer raised the issue of Europe’s lack of proactiveness when it comes to geopolitics, which hinders the European Union’s (EU) ambitions of being a geopolitical actor in the Middle East. Belfer stressed the importance of maintaining stability in North Africa and around the Mediterranean and noted that‘Libya and Libyan instability today should be unacceptable for everybody in Europe. It is not just about immigration, it’s also about our economic activities and stabilising the region. Allowing even one country in the south Mediterranean to be destabilised will have a residual impact on all of our geopolitical thinking.’ While recognising some success stories, where the EU’s geopolitical thinking is being implemented, such as the France-led maritime protection mission in the Arab Gulf, Belfer warned against EU’s lack of geopolitical thinking when it comes to Turkey and Iran. Given the Iranian regime’s flexible ideological external engagement, which is mirrored for example by its close alignment with the Sunni Hamas movement in Gaza, engagement with various Sunni groups, from the Taliban to Al-Qaeda, and the choice to cooperate closely with Christian Armenia rather than Shia Azerbaijan, Belfer thinks that ‘rather than stressing the Shia identity, we should focus on how flexible can Iran be in the pursuit of its interests.’ Should Iran project itself into the Eastern Mediterranean thanks to the power consolidation in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, it would have further destabilising consequences for the already crowded and volatile Eastern Mediterranean. A year from now ‘Europeans will be asking themselves what just happened?’ Europe seems to be unable to learn from the past, as is visible in the case of Iran and the use of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Al Quds Force for conducting foreign operations, including terrorist attacks. And so, according to Belfer, a year from now, ‘Europe will not be in a better position because we are not addressing the fundamental problems of decision-making at the European Union level or between European actors and if we do not manage that then everything will be just a great surprise for us.’
In relation to that, Michael Tanchum pointed to the interconnectedness between the developments in Europe and in the Middle East. He suggested that if Europe wants to develop an effective policy, it needs to first understand the rivalries and conflicts in the Middle East and the three major emerging regional powers (re: Turkey, Iran and Egypt) that significantly affect the dynamics around Europe’s southern border. Tanchum presented a strategic triangle that is driving the conflicts in the Middle East and that we need to understand: 1. Iran and its allies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen; 2. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE and 3. Turkey with troops in Qatar, Mogadishu, Northern Cyprus, Libya, Syria. The EU countries differ in their interests and choice of allies. Owing to their geographic location and historic experience there is a difference among EU countries and how they approach various actors — some EU countries see securing the Eastern flank against Russia as the key security concern, while other countries that are more concerned with the EU’s Southern flank, notably France, ‘seek not to antagonise Russia and cooperate with it’ because they have converging interests in Libya, where they are close with the UAE as well. In a sense, since France is the only EU country that is militarily active in the Maghreb and Sahel, it sets the agenda for other European countries in the region. Thus an important future challenge for Europe will be, according to Tanchum, to decide if it will follow France or develop something different. In the Gulf, Russia and China want to be close to both sides, so they developed close ties with Iran as well as Saudi Arabia and the UAE. European engagement in the region is affected by political interests, such as saving the Iran Nuclear Deal aka JCPOA, at the expense of the traditional European soft-power focused on the local socio-economic dimension and support for peaceful transformation. A year from now, Europe will face the key question ‘what did Europe do to support the people, who are now protesting in Iran, Lebanon, and Iraq and demand democracy and civil society?,’ said Tanchum. The tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean mirror growing assertiveness of several emerging regional powers amid significant natural gas findings. For Europe it is vital to focus on the developments in the Eastern Mediterranean region as it will become increasingly important for its natural gas supply mix. According to Tanchum, at the current pace of extraction Azerbaijan’s gas reserves will run dry in 5 years and if Europe does not want to replace them with supplies from Russia and Iran, it can turn to either Turkmenistan, Iraqi Kurdistan or the Eastern Mediterranean.
Robert Cutler focused on how NATO and the United States play into the equation, highlighting the key importance of four actors, the United States, EU, Russia and China, and their interactions. Particularly NATO can play an instrumental role in the Eastern Mediterranean. Cutler listed several key steps that NATO should undertake in the region: 1. sanction oil smuggling as tankers currently often turn off the transponders to take on Iranian oil, 2. be better at tracking non-NATO war vessels of Iran and Russia in the Eastern Mediterranean, 3. create a southern flank alternative to the Nordic Defence Cooperation (Nordefco), a defence cooperation initiative among Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, which would help Europe tackle threats coming from the region. The newly created East Med Gas Forum (EMGF), whose charter was signed in January 2020 by Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority as a platform for East Mediterranean natural gas cooperation, is according to Cutler nothing more than a talk-shop. Cutler was also not very optimistic about the future of the planned EastMed pipeline, as according to him, the large construction costs will prevent it from being built. The US increased its engagement in the East Mediterranean with the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act and the European Energy Security and Diversification Act, while Russia cemented its grip on European gas supply with the latest TurkStream and NordStream 2 projects. This could revive the talks about the Trans-Caspian Sea Gas Pipeline, which would bring natural gas reach from Turkmenistan via Romania to Central Europe and would thus provide an opportunity to diversify EU’s energy suppliers and ‘provide the EU geopolitical tools to ensure the security of its neighbourhoods […], including Central Asia, which would welcome European influence to counterbalance Russia and China’ —according to Cutler.
Velina Tchakarova (moderator) pointed out a further fragmentation among European powers and lack of a coherent position on diversification within the EU, stressing the need to decrease the EU’s dependence on a sole energy and security provider. Tchakarova also stressed the key importance of including Germany but reminding that ‘Germany has its own geopolitical and geo-economic interests that are not in line with the European geoeconomic and geopolitical interests neither with the interests of the so-called geopolitical European Commission. Whereas the European Commission agenda is in line with Germany’s geopolitical and geoeconomic interests.’ Coming back to Belfer’s remark about Europe’s reactiveness rather than proactiveness, Tchakarova warned that ‘in the long term, if we keep being overwhelmed by geopolitical and geoeconomic issues and if we keep reacting to post factum to them then at some point we are going to be a backyard of geopolitics, overwhelmed by regional actors that have just learnt how to play the game before us.’ The bottom line is, ‘so long as European member states are building their alliances along interests of external actors on the European continent, so long as they see a better outcome in relations with external actors, we are going to face a situation of further fragmentation.’