The year 2020 could not have started more turbulently in the Middle East.
The European Union is trying desperately to save the nuclear deal with Tehran as tension between Iran and America reached new levels with the assassination of Al-Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani on 3 January in a US drone strike.
Turkey and Syria are trading deadly strikes in Idlib in northern Syria as Russia watches uneasily. American’s poorly timed and badly drawn-up Middle East peace plan has fallen flat, causing angry Palestinians to cut security ties with Israel and the US administration. The situation in Iraq, Libya, and Yemen is getting worse and worse.
With the US preoccupied with president Donald Trump's impeachment and the Democratic Party primary elections, no wonder the EU is trying to take the initiative in such uncertain times. In multi-layered diplomatic efforts, it is focusing on easing the tensions in the Middle East, starting with saving the Iranian nuclear deal.
“Saving the deal is a cornerstone of EU diplomacy. If the nuclear deal were to fall apart, the tensions in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon would turn into total chaos,” said one EU diplomat to Ahram Online.
“With Iran tied to the nuclear deal and hoping to get some of the benefits, Tehran will continue to co-operate. However, with no nuclear deal and no prospect of lifting the sanctions, Iran will be a very dangerous player,” he added.
On Monday, EU top diplomat Josep Borrell was sent for talks with Iranian officials on a mission aimed at lowering tensions in the region and between Iran and the West. Borrell's trip, his first to Iran since taking office, followed a spike in tensions between arch-foes Washington and Tehran.
The two-day visit opened with a meeting with Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif followed by talks with president Hassan Rouhani and parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani. After the meeting between Borrell and Rouhani, the Iranian president said that Tehran might reconsider providing UN inspectors with access to Iran’s nuclear facilities if the country were confronted with “a new situation,” the official IRNA news agency reported.
“The trend of the inspections that has been carried out until today will continue, unless we face a new situation,” Rouhani was quoted as saying. He did not elaborate.
However, Rouhani said Iran was ready for “engagement” with Europe. “Whenever the other party fully implements its commitments, Iran will return to its commitments,” Rouhani emphasised.
In mid-January, Britain, France and Germany triggered the deal’s dispute mechanism, starting the clock on a process that could result in a “snapping back” of UN and EU sanctions against Iran. The aim of the European move is to press Tehran not to lower its commitment to the nuclear deal.
Speaking with reporters in Tehran, Borrell said that “we are in agreement not to go directly to a strict time limit that would oblige us to go to the [UN] Security Council. I asked the Iranian authorities, and I think they agree, that we have to continue with the survey of the International Atomic Energy Agency.”
“We expect some positive steps on the nuclear side, and the Iranians expect some positive steps on the economic side,” he said, adding that the issues would be addressed in the coming weeks. Borell also emphasised that the EU was not interested in trying to end the 2015 nuclear deal, but wanted to start a process that would “keep it alive.”
The 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and a group of world powers has been crumbling since Trump withdrew the US from it in 2018, and Washington has since stepped up sanctions and a campaign of “maximum pressure” against Iran.
Tehran has gradually stepped back from its own commitments under the deal, while military tensions with the US brought the two countries to the brink of full-blown confrontation last month.
The nuclear deal hangs on a thread, one that still permits international inspection of Iran’s atomic sites but is already threatened. Trump, facing an impeachment trial and an election campaign in the US, imposed new sanctions on Tehran last week targeting the head of Iran’s nuclear programme and the agency he directs.
The Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI) slammed the latest round of US sanctions, which added Iran’s nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi to a blacklist.
Borrell's mission aimed “to de-escalate the current tensions and seek opportunities for political solutions to the current crisis,” said the office of the EU's high representative for foreign affairs and security policy before the visit.
The trip’s purpose is to allow Borrell “to convey the EU's strong commitment to preserve” the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and to discuss cooperation between the EU and Iran, his office said.
Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi told a press conference on Monday that Tehran hoped Borrell's visit would help the EU to “understand” Tehran's situation and prompt the bloc to “show goodwill by taking serious measures.”
The Iranian regime is in a delicate position as it does not want to appear weaker after Soleimani's killing and the catastrophic mishandling of the downing of the Ukrainian passenger jet by Iranian missiles in January.
The European diplomatic efforts come while an uneasy quiet has settled over the Middle East in the month since a US drone strike killed Soleimani. Iran responded with a flurry of ballistic missiles at US forces in Iraq and announced it would no longer respect limits set on how many centrifuges it could use to enrich uranium for its peaceful nuclear programme.
Amid the tensions, Tehran accidentally shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane above Tehran, killing all on board, most of them Iranian. The repercussions of this fatal error are still playing out. Iran has ceased co-operation with Ukraine in its investigation into the downing of the Ukrainian jet after leaked remarks suggested Iran knew immediately that it had struck the plane.
Ukrainian TV aired an exchange between air traffic control in Tehran and a pilot who was landing as the jet crashed. The Iranian pilot allegedly stated he saw a flash like missile fire in the sky and then an explosion. In an audio clip published by a Ukrainian YouTube channel, the Aseman Airlines pilot said he saw lights in the sky ahead.
“Is this an active area? There are lights like a missile. Is there anything?” he asks. “Nothing has been reported to us. What's the light like?” the controller replies. The pilot says that "it's the light of a missile." The control tower is then heard trying to contact the Ukrainian plane without success. After a few minutes, the Iranian pilot tells the control tower he has just seen a “big light from an explosion.”
Iran initially denied responsibility for the downing of the plane on 8 January that killed 176 people, but Ukraine's president said the conversation proved the country knew the flight had been hit by a missile.
“We will no longer provide any documents to the Ukrainians,” head of the Iranian investigation team Hassan Rezaeifar told the Iranian news agency Mehr on Tuesday.
In the aftermath of the incident, Iran agreed to co-operate in the investigations with “foreign experts,” but there are clearly now tensions over their conduct. The EU is pressing Tehran to continue co-operating in the investigations.
Meanwhile, Brussels is stuck between the US and Iran and is running out of options.
“If Iran decides, for internal political calculations, to go further in reducing its obligations to the nuclear agreement, this will put the EU in a very difficult position and may lead to the return of full sanctions on Iran and the collapse of the nuclear deal. This would be a catastrophic failure for Tehran and Brussels. The next few months are crucial,” the European diplomat commented.