Is the Middle East the Transatlantic Achilles’ Heel?

This memo is part of a larger collection, POMEPS Studies 34: Shifting Global Politics and the Middle East. All pieces from this collection are available here.

Kristina Kausch, German Marshall Fund of the United States[1]

The transatlantic relationship has suffered two large fallouts in the last two decades triggered by divergences over Middle Eastern policy issues: the U.S. invasion of Iraq (2003) and the US withdrawal from the Joint and Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran (2018). The Iraq war drove a deep wedge through Europe, while the United States considered European participation in the military operation as desirable but dispensable. In 2018, by contrast, an interest-led, united European front in favor of the JCPOA prevents Washington from unfolding its economic warfare against Iran to full effect. But while the European consensus on the JCPOA appears solid, EU member states display considerable nuance on other Middle Eastern policy dossiers.

The Trump administration’s aggressive rhetoric creates the impression that Europe and the United States no longer want the same things in the Middle East. As Brussels and Washington steer towards a head-on confrontation on trade, for the first time since the Suez crisis, Europe and the United States are actively trying to undermine each other in a region that is of core geopolitical interest to both. The return of Russia to the Middle East has further boosted the region’s geopolitical significance by linking up the two big arches of crisis, from Morocco to Pakistan and from Eastern Europe to Russia, placing the Middle East at the conjunction of both.[2] Transatlantic policy divergences are not new, but the current tectonic shifts in global political order and the Trump administration’s hostility towards multilateral institutions poses an unusually sharp challenge to a decades long strategic alliance.

What are the implications of the transatlantic drift on the Middle East? A major risk is the creation of new power vacuums which leave the field to actors with aggressive expansionary agendas that will jeopardize the outlook of stabilization. In the current dynamics, the game in the Levant is increasingly negotiated between Russia, Iran, and Turkey, leaving the U.S. and the EU at the margins. Transatlantic divergence and reluctant action on the Middle East play directly into Russia’s hands, and Putin has been lobbying the Europeans to de-couple themselves from U.S. leadership in the Middle East. Transatlantic rivalry in the Middle East will not only lead to further destabilization of the Middle East against EU and U.S. core interests, but also hand Putin an ever-greater toolbox to play transatlantic partners against each other across multiple geopolitical arenas.

The Two Pillars of Middle Eastern Geopolitics

Two big policy dossiers form the backbone of current Middle Eastern geopolitics: the role of Iran in the region, and the position of Israel vis-à-vis its neighbors. These two pillars structure most of the ongoing conflicts in the region, from Syria to Yemen, and from the GCC crisis to Gaza. It is precisely on these two dossiers that European views and those of the Trump Administration have most drifted apart. Disagreeing on approaches to Iran and Israel/Palestine in practice means disagreeing on the overall vision for the region.

There is a great deal of continuity on both sides of the Atlantic, but also a number of marked differences in how key challenges are weighed and processed. Both agree that Iran must be prevented from going nuclear and that its regional aggressive expansionism must be halted, both are concerned by terrorism and ISIS, and both want to see regional stability. They fundamentally disagree, however, on how to accomplish those goals.

There is considerable continuity from Obama to Trump in terms of a general view that the United States should avoid costly military commitments in the Middle East. But the two administrations differ profoundly on the value of multilateral cooperation and diplomacy. Martin Indyk has suggested that the Trump doctrine for the Middle East consists in an assessment of the region as a hopeless “troubled place” whose wars and crises are not America’. This means embracing Middle Eastern allies regardless of political credentials, and have them bear the burden of regional security.[3]

By contrast, the European perspective on the Middle East is informed by a tangible interest in de-escalation to prevent Middle Eastern conflicts from further haemorrhaging into Europe in the form of refugees and jihadis. The 2015-16 refugee crisis has radically changed the way the region is perceived in Europe by turning Middle Eastern security into a decisive electoral factor that directly impacts on the European Union’s internal cohesion by fueling the rise of an anti-immigrant, Eurosceptic political current. Europe tends to see a greater role for multilateral cooperation and non-military forms of engagement.

Many in the American national security apparatus agree with European views on the need for a comprehensive, multi-layered approach to the region. But at the same time, many believe that the Europeans either underestimate or disregard the degree and impact of Iran’s regional roguery. Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are largely uncritically embraced by the Trump Administration as close allies in defending the region from an Iranian take-over. The Europeans, too, are concerned by Iran’s regional behavior, but also stress the need for Israel, the Sunni Gulf States and Russia to make concessions.

Iran: The Road to Containment

While the European consensus on maintaining the JCPOA is solid, France and the UK in particular share Washington’s desire to put greater pressure on Tehran regarding its regional behavior. Beyond the narrative of ripping apart a bad deal, no meaningful contingency plans have been put in place by Washington beyond economic sanctions. While the general deterrence course outlined by Secretary Pompeo included a number of elements by which Iranian containment is meant to be achieved, it remained unclear what means will be employed to put those measures into practice. In addition, the Trump Administration’s unambiguous alignment with Israel further fuels regional polarization by contributing to the build-up of a regional anti-Iranian front. Seizing the momentum of the U.S. and Gulf backing, the Israelis might even feel emboldened to escalate militarily with Iran.

The Europeans have an only slightly more tangible plan regarding Iran. While the E3 continue their efforts to hold up the agreement despite the withdrawal of the United States, they also seek to build on the relationship established with Tehran through the JCPOA. As EU High Representative Federica Mogherini has pointed out on countless occasions, the Union hopes that continuous dialogue and confidence-building with Iran will gradually open channels to envisage similar agreements on missiles and other regional dossiers, including via the newly launched EU/E4 (the European Union, France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom) dialogue on regional issues with Iran. At the same time, senior EU officials acknowledge that they do not expect to be able to keep the JCPOA alive if Trump gets reelected in 2020, and that there is no Plan B. Beyond the JCPOA, France and the UK are pressing for a much more demanding course towards Tehran that contrasts with the EU institutions’ socialization approach.[4] It has been often stressed that the EU’s fervent defense of the JCPOA has been partially fueled by an intent to safeguard the bloc’s most important foreign policy success at a time when the Union’s legacy is under unprecedented stress from within.

Palestine and Israel

The other big clash and a marked example of European balancing of what they see as irresponsible US policy shifts is on Israel and Palestine. The decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem announced in December 2017, observers agree, was about US domestic politics and had very little connection to its impact on the Arab-Israeli peace process. From Trump’s perspective, it was an easy domestic win with his pro-Israeli core electoral base, with maximum symbolic impact at almost no cost. At the same time, the move fit into the recent US approach of tough love for the Palestinians paired with an unambiguous pro-Israeli bias in an apparent attempt to break the status quo of the stalled peace process.

The move, heavily criticized across Europe, has driven a second wedge between the White House and European governments. Despite initial hesitation in some European capitals of whether taking a firm stance on Palestine was worth another quarrel with the White House, the European consensus held, and consolidated. The Europeans have since implemented a number of policies to back up the Palestinians, such as directly countering Trump’s sharp rhetoric with unambiguous statements or filling the funding gaps in UNWRA to help Palestinian refugees.[5] Some European governments, such as Spain, have publicly considered the formal recognition of the State of Palestine.

The background to the prospective draft peace plan being hatched by Jared Kushner provides a glimpse of the Trump Administration’s objectives in Israel and Palestine. In the face of the stalled peace talks, Kushner’s plan was born out of a desire to try something entirely different, again parting from past policies and traditions in a deliberately disruptive way. Instead of reshuffling the same ideas successive U.S. governments have tried for the past 15 years, the new plan reportedly consists of a gloves-off approach towards the Palestinians alongside an unambiguous alignment with Israel. Awaiting the plan to come into the open, close observers expect disruption as the main theme but there seems to be no ambition to bring both sides closer together.

EU member states have traditionally tended to overlook what they perceived as a biased US position on Israel/Palestine to preserve their good relations with the United States. The recent turns taken by the Trump Administration, followed by the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, however, might have turned the tide on Europeans’ permissiveness on Palestine. Indeed, harsh European condemnations of Trump’s Jerusalem announcement contrasted with tame reactions from Arab governments.[6] Despite this, Europeans have not come up with any better idea to break the deadlock in the stalled peace process. Senior Israeli foreign ministry officials expect France to come up with its own peace plan should the U.S. government fail to present the long-awaited plan hatched by Kushner following the November 2018 mid-term elections. A new outbreak of violence in Palestine might well thrust Europe into the traditional American role of the intermediary between Israelis and the Palestinians if the Trump Administration continues to signal so clearly that it is no longer interested in this role.[7]

The Big Proxy Wars, At Arm’s Length

Divisions on transatlantic takes on the two pillars of Middle Eastern geopolitics partially condition U.S. and EU policy in the major proxy conflicts in Syria and Yemen.

Throughout the Syria conflict, Europe has seen its interests frustrated and its influence sidelined. Via a channel of talks between Iran and the EU/E4 on regional issues, the Europeans have been able to discuss both Syria and Yemen with Tehran, albeit without any breakthroughs. At the same time, the leading European powers increasingly place their bets on bilateral channels to preserve some influence. Europe’s main bargaining chip in Syria remains its economic power. The largest humanitarian donor to the Syrian people, since the beginning of the war, EU and member states have jointly contributed over €10.8 billion in humanitarian, development, economic and stabilization assistance.[8] Regarding European post-war reconstruction aid and the lifting of sanctions, Europe’s constant line has been to make both conditional to an inclusive political process. If the Assad regime regains full control of Syria and keeps rejecting any meaningful inclusionary process, an already marginal Europe could be pushed to the sidelines by losing its most important lever of influence.

The US assessment on Syria has shifted only slightly from Obama to Trump. While Obama prioritized the fight against ISIS and opposed Assad but without being prepared to do much about it, Trump prioritizes ISIS and opposes Iran but without being prepared to do much about it. Trump’s desire to avoid further U.S. military engagement and financial strain translates into no formal broadening of the U.S. military mandate beyond ISIS, and no meaningful role in post-war reconstruction. Some voices in Washington have been hoping the U.S. can strike a deal with Russia, defeat ISIS and get out. Trump has long made clear that all he cares about in Syria is ISIS, although more recently, senior state department officials assure troops are here to stay and that Iran’s presence in Syria is a decisive factor in this decision. The Trump administration has also frozen aid money for Syria and programs are being shut down including post ISIS stabilization work. Paradoxically, all these measures are in direct contradiction to Trump’s tough rhetoric on Iran, which would likely be the first benefactor of further vacuums in Syria.

The Europeans have remained largely in sync with US positions, joining the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS and retaining their (however waning) opposition against Assad. In April 2018, French and British forces joined the U.S. in launching coordinated airstrikes in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Beyond symbolic military and political action, however, the Europeans have been struggling to claim a political role in Syria alongside their humanitarian efforts on the ground.[9] As the conflict tilts in favor of Assad, EU unity over Syria falters and U.S. engagement remains uncertain. The Europeans have been worried over the possibility of a U.S. withdrawal from Syria as they need the U.S. to counterbalance the Russian and Iranian presence. At the same time, Russia has been pressing hard for the Europeans to pick up the reconstruction bill regardless of Assad’s future and has been keen on Europe to act independently from the U.S.. In October 2018, France and Germany publicly teamed up with Russia and Turkey to secure the implementation of the Idlib agreement, in which the Europeans have a strong interest as a measure to prevent a further refugee exodus. By joining an ongoing conversation between the Astana powers, France and Germany attempt to preserve some influence in a dossier that is increasingly being negotiated between Russia, Iran, and Turkey. In doing so, Europe is increasingly de-coupling itself from U.S. leadership as the U.S. remains ambiguous on its engagement in Syria and is unwilling to pay for reconstruction in what could be a joint bid for renewed leverage in a post-conflict setting.

 Concern for the region’s other big proxy war, the ongoing humanitarian disaster in Yemen, is shared across the Atlantic, in particular in the U.S. Congress and the European Parliament. Formal U.S. policy statements, however, barely veil the Trump Administration’s preference for the Sunni Arab coalition to prevail via military victory. Among both Republicans and Democrats in Washington, there is a hard line against Iranian aggression in the Middle East, and Yemen is seen by many as prime example of where the U.S. should be pursuing a countering policy. Calls by Congress and others on Trump to exert more pressure on Saudi Arabia on the Yemen dossier have gained more weight after the outcry over the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul has led many to put in question Washington’s close partnership with Saudi Arabia. Such a move would bring the U.S. closer to the European position. However, these hopes were shattered by an unambiguous statement by Trump in November 2018 geared at reassuring Riyadh of his full backing.[10]

U.S. and British defense contractors have been the main financial benefactors from the Yemen war, reaping huge benefits from their arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The U.S. is the largest arms suppliers to Riyadh with $8.4 billion worth of sales since 2014, followed by the UK ($2.6 billion), and France ($475 million).[11] The United Kingdom, the dominant EU member state in the Gulf including on the Yemen dossier, is also the first European weapons supplier and has on numerous occasions provided political cover to the Sunni Gulf States. Alongside the UK, France, Sweden, and Spain are major arms supplier to the Gulf states involved in the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, and all have disregarded periodic calls for an EU-wide ban on arms sales to these states, including two European Parliament Resolutions. EU member states Germany, Denmark and Finland, however, have banned arms sales to Saudi Arabia in the wake of the Khashoggi murder. Unlike the U.S. government, whose support to Saudi Arabia and the UAE has been critical to the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, the Europeans have retained working relations with all the parties and have provided consistent support for UN efforts to broker a ceasefire and mediate peace talks. The EU is therefore seen as comparatively neutral.[12] The recently launched dialogue between the E4/EU and Iran over Yemen displays a European willingness to follow on to the engagement strategy with Iran. Greater coherence and unity in terms of arms sales to the Gulf states would greatly increase Europe’s political weight in such talks.[13]


The split over the Iranian nuclear dossier reflects increasing divergence across the Atlantic not only on key Middle Eastern policy issues, but also on the ways the emerging international system should be navigated. The politics of global transformation, the state of the transatlantic relationship, and key Middle Eastern policy dossiers are inextricably linked.

The EU/E3 and the current U.S. Administration share similar threat perceptions but weigh and process them very differently. While there is convergence in core interests, as well as constructive cooperation in a number of areas, they clash namely on the two fundamental policy dossiers that condition most other hotspots in the current Middle Eastern multipolar system: Iran and Israel/Palestine. As long as European and U.S. policy on these two dossiers clash, effective transatlantic cooperation on sustainable Middle Eastern security will be unfeasible. In digesting Trump, European political elites have gone through three phases: denial, waiting-it-out, and fighting back. Balancing Trumpism, Europe has decided to counter U.S. policies whenever Trump crosses a red line. It has already embarked on a path of its own on Iran, and has started doing so in Palestine and Syria.

EU and U.S. positions in the big regional proxy conflicts point to a larger commonality in their respective Middle East policies: the gaping abyss between objectives proclaimed and means employed. Be it with regard to saving Syria or containing Iran, and albeit for very different reasons, both EU and U.S. Middle East policies suffer from the underlying contradiction of a claim to leadership with an arms-length approach. Russia’s role in Syria and across the region has raised not only the threshold for military engagement but EU and U.S. stakes in the conflict more broadly.


[1] An extended version of this article was published by the German Marshall Fund under the title “Balancing Trumpism in the Middle East” in December 2018.

[2] Interview with Klaus Naumann, former Chairman of the NATO Military Committee: Europa in the Turbulenzen der Weltpolitik, Zentrum Liberale Moderne, 19.7.2018.

[3] Martin Indyk: A Trump Doctrine for the Middle East, The Atlantic, 14.4.2018.

[4] Riccardo Alcaro: Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Europe’s Uncertain Role in Middle Eastern Geopolitics, IAI Policy Brief, May 2018.

[5] Jon Stone: EU pledges €42.5m extra aid to Palestinians after Donald Trump cuts US contribution, The Independent, 31 January 2018

[6] Gol Kalev: The Battle for Jerusalem: Europe vs. the United States, Jerusalem Post, 16 December 2017.

[7] James Traub: RIP the Transatlantic Alliance, 1945-2018, Foreign Policy, 11 May 2018.

[8] European Union: The EU and the Crisis in Syria: Factsheet, 24 September 2018.

[9] Richard Youngs: Boosting the Localist Approach in Syria, Carnegie Endowment, 2018.

[10] The White House: Statement from President Donald J. Trump on Standing with Saudi Arabia, 20 November 2018.

[11] EU urges arms ban on Saudi alliance to stop Yemen war, Press TV, 5 October 2018.

[12] Joost Hiltermann: It’s Time for the European Union to Push Yemen Towards Peace, International Crisis Group, 8 June 2018.

[13] Riccardo Alcaro: Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Europe’s Uncertain Role in Middle Eastern Geopolitics, IAI Policy Brief, May 2018.