Are the U.S. and Europe Coming Closer to War on Iran? | Opinion

There is a sense of relief and success in Iran over the Warsaw Summit. Designed to mobilize an international coalition against Iran, the summit attracted few recognizable faces—which has been translated as failure of the summit in itself by many. Russia outright declined the invitation, while many Western European countries chose to send lower-ranking officials to participate the conference.

Still, if the prospect of a regional war in the Middle East fills you with dread, it's too soon to be jubilant. This conference is likely to be more than an inconsequential public bashing of Iran.

The U.S. anti-Iran policy is a process, not just an event. The Warsaw Summit is part of a broader policy of isolating Iran and builds on a previously existing hostile policy infrastructure. At the Middle East level, the U.S. is spearheading the establishment of an Arab military alliance (MESA) against Iran. The Warsaw summit was part of a move to build a wider international consensus against Tehran.

Irrespective of profiles of participants, these initiatives are generating major challenges for Iran and for Europe's ability to forge its own policy for the region, independently of the U.S. The U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal already broke the transatlantic consensus on Iran. With Poland summit, the U.S. is likely to break the Europe's own internal consensus on Iran. And this rupture isn't going to be just confined to Eastern European countries—which traditionally adopt positions that are closer to that of the US—versus the Western European states. Although he arrived ostensibly only to take part in discussions on Yemen, British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt participated in the conference. talian foreign minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi was also amongst the few ministers that was in Warsaw.

So where do Europe and the U.S. differ on Iran?

The U.S. wants to once again securitize the geopolitical identity of Iran and its regime, and prevent further normalization of Iran in international affairs. Thus, the US portrays Iran's unpalatable regional policies as an inevitable reflection of its problematic regime type, from which follows that the ultimate answer to the Iran question is regime change, not just policy change. The current U.S. administration's language and diplomatic activism clearly reflects this preference. The main internal division appears to be between supporters of "hard" regime change, which would necessitate military confrontation, and certain elements of the U.S. government wedded to the idea of Soviet-style domestic collapse through severe economic sanctions and international isolation.

In contrast, the Europeans have increasingly come to embrace the idea of policy or behavior change instead of regime change. Their straightforward: the more you normalize Iran in international affairs, the more you can ask Iran to behave "normally." Re-imposition of sanctions will indicate that the West is seeking to change the regime itself, rather than its behavior, and this would discourage Iran from cooperating with the West.

Yet if we put the nuclear deal and the question of regime change aside, there are significant level of convergence and consensus between the U.S. and Europe on Iran. Europe can reject the re-imposition of the economic sanctions on Iran, which in return can lessen the Iranian fear of Soviet style domestic collapse. But at the same time, Europe is likely to join the US in rejecting Iran's missile programme, regional policy and militia network.

Indeed, the missile and militia components of Iran's regional policy are the likeliest issue on which Europe could align itself closer with the U.S. Both Britain and France argued that Iran's test of the medium-range ballistic missile might be in breach of the United Nations obligations. Likewise, a number European powers have increasingly voiced concerns over Iran's regional policy, particularly its regional alliance network of state and non-state actors, including pro-Iranian Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi, People Mobilization Units in Iraq, the Assad regime, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Houthis in Yemen. Iran's idea of its national security is premised on maintaining this alliance network in the region, but this expansive approach induces backlash from other regional powers.

Iran is unlikely to give up on this regional policy, or, indeed, its missile program anytime soon. To the contrary, the more the U.S. pushes for an anti-Iranian block, the more incentive Iran has to further entrench its regional presence and network, as this is the only thing with which Iran can effectively negotiate with international as well as regional actors. Iran's potential to cause harm and inflict pains on its regional foes, and ability to undermine international powers' regional agenda are major factors that motivate many to engage and negotiate with Iran. Being fully conscious of this, Iran is unlikely to downsize its regional presence.

This creates a vicious cycle. If Iran reacts strongly to the US—European policy on its missile program and regional policy, this can create further convergence between Europe and the U.S. on Iran and which in return will be the harbinger of a new era of confrontation between Iran and the West.

It was ironic that when attendees of the Warsaw summit were grappling with the question of how to contain and confront Iran, leaders of Turkey, Russia and Iran were meeting in Sochi to chart the new course in Syria. Another consequence of the Warsaw summit, if pursued through other platforms and means, is that it can solidify the emerging camps in the Middle East: Gulf Arab countries aligned with Israel and the United States versus non-Arab northern tier countries (Turkey and Iran) pragmatically and conjecturally cooperating with Russia.

The US' current regional policy and alliance network motivate this latter grouping to gloss over their difference and stick together for longer. This in return aggravates the regional divides, further strengthens Russian regional role and reduces European room of maneuver in the Middle East.

Galip Dalay is a visiting Scholar at the department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford and non-resident fellow at Brookings Institutions, Doha Center.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​

Are the U.S. and Europe Coming Closer to War on Iran? | Opinion | Opinion
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