A once-in-a-generation power shift is taking place in the Middle East with the rise of Iran. As the U.S is temporarily distracted in the run-up to the November elections, many in the Gulf fear that Iran will parlay its recent successes, for example by Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Shia parties in Iraq, into an even stronger position. Such a shift will have direct consequences for the region and for Europe’s security and well-being.
At present, Iran is unlikely to be mollified – having rejected even generous offers of EU assistance – and a stronger relationship between the EU and the Gulf is now needed to build a bulwark against Iran’s influence, until a new U.S administration decides whether to engage or not in talks with Tehran. But links between the resource-rich Gulf will benefit the EU in others ways too.
France is well-placed to build such a relationship, having enhanced the EU’s links across the Mediterranean and led the way by building a military base in the UAE – probably the biggest political European gesture to the region.
An early step could be to invite the GCC Heads of States to the EU Summit in December 2008; such meeting – the first of its kind – could issue a political declaration, wowing to strengthen ties. The EU could follow up with some quick-win initiatives – like appointing an EU envoy to the GCC who could lead a European Stability Pact-style engagement process – while a dedicated EU-GCC Summit, held under the Czech EU Presidency in late 2009, could follow. Negotiations may be the only way forward, but these should be conducted not from weakness.