Online Commentary

February 12, 2021

Middle East and North Africa

Transatlantic Action Plan

North Africa and the Middle East have never been, conceptually or politically, a homogenous and organic space. For decades, Europeans looked at their southern neighborhood through the rose-tinted lenses of a cooperative Euro-Mediterranean region, seeking to extend their norms, rules and values through the deployment of soft power, from trade and aid, to security cooperation and political dialogue. 

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This photo released Nov. 5, 2019 by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran shows centrifuge machines in the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in central Iran.
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This Transatlantic Action Plan originally appeared in Stronger Together: A Strategy to Revitalize Transatlantic Power, a collaborative report from the German Council on Foreign Relations and the Harvard Kennedy School.

The United States instead neatly divided the region between North Africa and the Middle East, heavily prioritizing the latter over the former in its diplomatic and military outreach and viewing it through the prism of the Arab-Israeli conflict, its strategic relationship with NATO ally Turkey, and its own conflict with Iran. European and U.S. approaches were different but complementary. 

Some of the key pillars of that world have gone. The Arab state system is in tatters, with many (if not most) states featuring existential fragilities or having collapsed altogether. State fragility has created areas of limited statehood, in which alternative forms of governance—from militias to municipalities, international donors to civil society—have stepped in and in which foreign powers have meddled.

Through such interference, global and regional rivalries have exacerbated and have found fertile ground. All major global and regional cleavages are now tragically on display in the region: from the Russia–West and Israel-Iran confrontation in Syria, to the Turkish-EU tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, from the Turkey-UAE/Egypt struggle over political Islam in Libya, to the Iran-Saudi conflict in Yemen, or the Gulf and Israeli skepticism of the Iran nuclear deal. 

Energy has become a proxy for confrontation—as evident in the configuration of the East Med Gas Forum from which Turkey is excluded—and migration has become both a dramatic consequence of fragility and conflict, as well as a tool through which origin and transit countries have arm-twisted Europe. The only cleavage that appears to have temporarily abated is the Arab-Israeli one, with the Abraham accords crystallizing normalization between Israel and some Gulf states. However, here too one only needs to scratch the surface to see how the normalization between countries that were never at war—like Israel and UAE—may have pushed further down the line the peace—between Israelis and Palestinians—the U.S. and Europe sought for decades.   

Consequently, the region has become far more permeable than it once was. It has become impossible to read conflicts in North Africa and the Middle East in isolation, as regional powers like Saudi Arabia, UAE, Iran, Israel and Turkey weigh in across the region. Likewise, migration, energy, security and climate dynamics have generated indissoluble ties between North and Sub-Saharan Africa, the Gulf and the Horn of Africa as well as between the Eastern Mediterranean and the broader Middle East. North Africa and the Middle East have become a much wider and more heterogeneous geographical space, in which different thematic issues interlock.  

CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES

The region is rife with challenges. While they all feature local, regional, international and transnational dimensions, each one has its specificity warranting a precise mix of transatlantic cooperation, risk and responsibility sharing.

Three crises are worth reflecting on, pointing to different models of transatlantic cooperation. 

Libya

In Libya, the U.S. has signaled its preference for disengagement. From President Obama’s leading from behind to President Trump’s aloofness notwithstanding the resumption of civil war, Washington, across Democrat and Republican administrations, has steered clear of a deep dive into the Libyan quagmire. That preference has panned out in diametrically opposite ways: in Obama’s case, the U.S. intervened militarily through NATO on the basis of a UN Security Council resolution calling for a no-fly zone but expected European heavy lifting in that endeavor (that only partially materialized). In Trump’s case, the U.S. adopted a largely hands-off approach to Libya, peppered with a dose of confusion as to whether Washington would support General Khalifa Haftar’s military offensive or would stand by the UN-backed Government of National Accord. 

Europeans have fared no better. They have been bitterly divided over Libya, with France never openly but practically backing Haftar’s military onslaught alongside UAE and Egypt, while Italy stood by Serraj’s government in Tripoli, and Germany pursued a diplomatic track through the Berlin process. Sadly, uniting Europeans has been the shared reluctance to meaningfully step collectively into Libya to halt the violence, secure a ceasefire and support state-building in the war-torn country.

Regional powers exploited the transatlantic void. Without Emirati and Egyptian support, Haftar could not have initiated his military attack. When Russia backed Haftar through its Wagner mercenaries, Tripoli risked falling. Then Turkey intervened militarily to support the Government of National Accord, and a balance of forces was reestablished. Today, neither side harbors the illusion of an all-out military victory over the other, explaining the uneasy ceasefire on the ground. Yet as other conflicts amply demonstrate—one only needs to think of Nagorno Karabakh—a ceasefire is no guarantee of peace. Quite the contrary, a ceasefire in Libya could open the way to two different outcomes: the crystallization of a simmering conflict partitioning de facto the country on the one hand and reconciliation and state-building on the other. Left to local and regional parties, notably an entente between Russia and Turkey, the first scenario is far more likely. To veer towards the second, a more granular transatlantic involvement is necessary. 

In Libya, it is the Europeans that should assume primarily responsibility and risk. The U.S. should play second fiddle, providing political support, both directly to Europeans and indirectly through their role in the UN Security Council as well as their bilateral relationships with Turkey, UAE and Egypt. Through a UNSC-mandated European presence on the ground to consolidate a ceasefire—with a civilian monitoring mission with force protection—working alongside other multilateral players such as the African Union, the League of Arab States and Turkey, Libya could have a far better chance of achieving genuine stabilization. 

Eastern Mediterranean

In the Eastern Mediterranean, the European Union has to face the consequences of its own non-neutral predicament, making U.S. facilitation key. With Greece and the Republic of Cyprus in the EU and Turkey outside and with increasingly acrimonious relations between Turkey and France, the EU, institutionally, is simply disqualified as a credible first fiddle in the Eastern Mediterranean. Be it in reviving the push for a bi-zonal and bi-communal federation in Cyprus or in restarting negotiations between Greece and Turkey on the delimitation of territorial waters, national airspaces, exclusive economic zones and the status of a few uninhabited islets in the Aegean, the EU cannot be a credible mediator. The U.S. has a far more legitimate role to play. At times this is indirect through the UN’s role in Cyprus or NATO Secretary General’s facilitation between Greece and Turkey, at the very least to ensure that de-confliction mechanisms are in place. 

On other issues, it can be more direct: key in this respect will be a U.S. push to ensure that the East Med Gas Forum, which currently features an impressive number of players in the region including Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Italy, is extended without preconditions to Turkey. Regional cooperation, including on energy matters, is positive so long as it works to bridge across rather than cement regional divides. 

Iran

A third model of transatlantic cooperation is on Iran. Here, the U.S. had excluded itself from the show under the Trump administration, and European facilitation will be essential to easing Washington’s way back into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), using this as a basis to extend and build upon it. Throughout his campaign, President-elect Joe Biden clearly indicated his intention to reenter the Iran nuclear deal on the grounds of clean “compliance for compliance.” The intention is crucial, but alone it is insufficient. With a likely Republican-majority Senate and the JCPOA itself on life-support, achieving this transatlantic goal will require a carefully crafted strategy. 

The aim should be sequentially freezing, reversing and building on the JCPOA. This could begin with obtaining guarantees that Iran will freeze the reduction of its JCPOA implementation commitments and that the U.S. will move back to full adherence to the accord, notably by easing restrictions on Iranian oil revenue frozen in European and Asian banks as well as alleviating concerns regarding U.S. sanctions posture and enforcement. Once the U.S. and Iran reverse violations and return to full JCPOA compliance, the Joint Commission should identify elements that could lend themselves to follow-up talks. Key in this respect are the sunset clauses that begin to lapse from 2023 and further sanctions relief from the U.S. in return, including easing restrictions on Iran’s access to the U.S. dollar as well as enhancing global cooperation with Iran on nuclear safety and civilian uses of nuclear energy. However, the same mistake should not be made again: regional questions should be added to the menu of negotiations sooner rather than later. These should build on the first tentative signals sent by Gulf countries—notably Qatar, Kuwait and Oman, but to an extent also UAE—of openness towards Iran and the Iranian HOPE initiative, beginning with maritime questions as well as confidence-building measures on heavy artillery and missiles. 

In this process, the re-establishment of trust will be essential. Unfortunately, the events of the last four years cannot be erased. Whereas all conflict negotiations are premised on a lack of trust, pre-Trump it was the West that doubted Iran’s reliability, not the reverse. Hence, the stringent IAEA inspection regime accepted by Iran as well as the carefully crafted process allowing sanctions snapback notwithstanding (predictable) Russian and Chinese opposition. Post-Trump, Iran will inevitably expect safeguards against U.S. non-compliance and European weakness in doing anything about it. Providing those guarantees with a Republican-majority Senate will not be easy. 

In this context, the EU (more than the E-3) has value-added to bring to the table, given that Iranian trust in the Union—notably in the High Representative and the European External Action Service—is higher than in the E-3 collectively, which were seen as too weak in light of threatened U.S. secondary sanctions. The EU is recognized by all parties as having the institutional memory, negotiation experience and consistency that enables it to play a useful facilitation role. This reservoir of trust, particularly at a time in which trust will be the scarcest commodity and in which communication channels between Biden’s transition team and Iran are almost absent, should be capitalized on for the purpose of assisting a U.S.–Iran compliance for compliance pathway. 

This is even more important given that time will be of the essence. There is essentially a six month-time window between the inauguration of a Biden presidency and the Iranian presidential election. In this space, an EU role aimed at scoping respective U.S. and Iranian red lines on what a graduated sequenced reentry into the JCPOA might look like, alongside the mapping on its eventual follow-up, may be the first step to make and should begin in the coming days, maximizing the time available before inauguration.  
 

Bibliographic data

Action Plan from the report "Stronger Together. A Strategy to Revitalize Transatlantic Power" by the Transatlantic Strategy Group convened by the Harvard Kennedy School and DGAP.

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