Revisionism in Romania, in the Context of the Centennial

This article is summarising the conclusions of a research conducted over the Romanian mainstream and social media, seeking to identify the presence of secessionist and revisionist narratives, what are the conditions facilitating their presence, and who are the actors benefiting. The research was part of the project Revealing Russian disinformation networks and active measures fuelling secessionism and border revisionism in the CEEconducted under the supervision of Political Capital, Budapest

Disinformation about Romanian-Hungarian relations as presented in Romanian mainstream and social media is primarily an illustration of home-grown mistrust between two communities lacking proper dialogue and knowledge of each other, a mistrust that, in addition, was historically cultivated as an instrument of manipulation during the decades of communism. External interference merely amplifies domestic content and provides every now and then the additional spin that serves the interests of – most often – Russia. 

Given the highly negative track-record of relations between Bucharest and Moscow, the population on the whole tends to be quite resilient in front of openly promoted pro-Russian narratives (interaction rates with Russian media outlets such as sputnik.md or RT also remain low); however, Russian-backed local actors or ‘useful idiots’ whose agendas largely overlap with the Kremlin’s and who embrace similar rhetoric can be quite successful in their presentation of Romanian-Hungarian relations as irreconcilable. These also feed the Russian efforts to present Romania as a hypocrite, revisionist and interventionist state, aiming to reunite with the Republic of Moldova, and permanently interfering in Moldovan politics for that purpose – which is most often the focus of Russian propaganda. Only in isolated cases (such as a relatively recent interethnic incident in the Uz Valley over a war cemetery) are there signs of coordination between Russian outlets and the internal groups that are behind the flare in Romanian-Hungarian tensions. 

Thus, the most frequent producers (and at the same time beneficiaries) of disinformation about Romanian-Hungarian relations are the (multiplying) far-right, nationalist, anti-liberal groups; political actors do jump on board when they identify an opportunity to harness interethnic tensions to collect votes, but generally refrain from translating inflammatory rhetoric into political action. Until recently, the theme mostly featured in the discourse of the more populistic Social-Democrats (absent any major far-right or otherwise radical political party in Romania, the PSD has tried to appeal to this particular electorate as well). Paradoxically, liberal and German ethnic president Klaus Iohannis tried to use the same language to recapture some of this audience not long ago, by playing on the requests for enhanced autonomy advanced by the Hungarian minority – but with mixed results, as he got a lot of negative fallout from some of his own core electorate.

In a sample of articles covering relevant events (Romania’s anniversary of its 1918 Great Unification, i.e. the reintegration of territories once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; the above-mentioned inter-ethnic incident in Uz Valley followed by a row of rather undiplomatic exchanges) and containing key words signaling potential inflammatory content, less than half of the articles were in fact presenting positions against Hungary /the Hungarian minority in Romania. The general number of press articles containing unequivocal chauvinistic/ xenophobic assertions is rather low in Romanian media – which should not be mistaken, however, for the absence of such attitudes in the collective mindset.

The mutual social and cultural disconnect between the Romanian and Hungarian minorities are, on the one hand, the result of short-sighted government policies on both sides, which have generated socio-economic cleavages and inequality, and on the other side of occasionally deliberate attempts by both Bucharest and Budapest to maintain control over their respective communities in Transylvania and be able to use the rhetoric of secessionism when that served their interests. With the population in the rest of the country being rather ignorant of local realities in the counties with a sizeable Hungarian populations, perceptions were largely formed by government or political communication and the media. This has led to historically-based stereotypes, shaped both in the past (by the socialist regime) and at the present time (by nationalists and populists), whereby a common Romanian identity and the feeling of national solidarity are largely shaped by the rallying call to unity against a plethora of external enemies that have forever coveted Romanian territories – Hungary among them, also through its ‘internal agents’: Hungarian ethnics living in Romania. Calls for secession from the Hungarian minority and the interference of Budapest-backed elements in stirring local tensions have provided the element of truth that has strengthened the credibility of such narratives.

Looking at the discourse around Romanian’s Centennial anniversary and that of the Treaty of Trianon (2018), one can easily note that most disinformation/ misinformation revolved around the nationalistic, ethno-centrist narratives exaggerating the unique role that the Romanian population have played in achieving the Great Unification and romanticising the events surrounding it. This amounts, as described, to the creation (or continuation) of an alternative national history meant to use rather widely-shared feelings of victimisation to generate commonality of identity and purpose: ‘The Great Unification was made by the Romanian people. The help received during the process was not crucial or decisive’, ‘there are external, and internal occult forces acting to diminish/deny the importance of the 1918 Great Unification’, ‘reunification between Romania and the Republic of Moldova is of the greatest importance’, ‘Russia is aggressively promoting its policy of maintaining its sphere of influence/vassal states’, ‘there are important resentments among the European states (especially those who were on the losing side of the WWI) towards Romania’s Great Unification’.

These are further facilitated by the rise of nationalism, nativism and the irresponsibility of political discourse, whose populist tones cater to these audiences. Such topics are picked up by mainstream media – including those that overestimate the role that Romania played in WWI and the Great Unification, or calls for reunification with the Republic of Moldova, a kind of ‘border revisionism’, which continues to be seen by a significant part of the population as acceptable and thus forces politicians to at least not oppose it openly (thus adding more fuel to the fire and feeding the Russian messaging about Romanian revisionism).

More fringe nationalist media will also distribute a set of narratives about Hungary’s alleged subversive behaviour, its hidden agenda in dividing Romania by supporting the secession of the Hungarian majority Szekler Land, and generally its actions as a regional disruptor. Among these, ‘Hungary is supporting territorial revisionism in Szekler Land’, ‘Hungary has a hidden, historical plan to annex the territories it has lost as a consequence of the Trianon Treaty’, ‘Hungary is a vile state predisposed to mingling in Romania’s internal affairs’, ‘the ethnic Hungarian population in Transylvania (and their political representatives) are hostile to the Romanian population’, ‘Romania holds military superiority over Hungary’. These fringe media republish one another intensively and fuel an ecosystem gathering anti-liberal, orthodox groups together with far-right and xenophobic ones. The vocabulary used in promoting the narratives in this set is usually xenophobic and chauvinistic.

In a context where fringe social and online media increasingly influence mainstream media and radical political positions often push the agenda of centrist parties more to the extremes, dialogue on thorny issues like Romanian – Hungarian relations, in a formal and considerate setting, as well as measures directed at reduction of inequalities among target populations are of paramount importance in helping bridge communities, while ensuring a healthy information space is also a key factor. And as the problem is not located only at a political level (which rather opportunistically uses its pre-existence and helps perpetuate the situation), civil society organisations have an essential role to play in addressing these issues at grassroots level.

Let’s make a folder. What do we know about AUR, the new golden party of the Romanian far right?

The far-right Alliance for the Unity of Romanians (AUR) was the big surprise of the recent Romanian parliamentary elections. Against a background of low turnout (32%) it obtained 9% of the vote. Only two months ago, during the recent local elections, it had only 1%[1].

The increase took pretty much all commentators by surprise. Some were infused with a sense of panic. Where did this party come from and where will it take Romanian politics, they wondered? Others took a more down-to-earth approach. Sociologist Claudiu Tufiș expressed on Facebook the hope that social scientists would now (finally!) make a folder called ‘AUR’ to study the new party [and perhaps provide insight on how its rise can be stopped]. That same hope inspired the title of this article.

In the following piece I have tried to put together what we already know about AUR. Some things I know personally, having looked into the history and activity of the party. Some came from others who share my interest. And, finally, some insight came from a debate hosted by Global Focus Center under Chatham House rules.

The good news is that we know quite a bit. The bad news is that it’s more complicated than first meets the eye.

The party seems to draw from two main ideological groups. One is made of radical unionists gathered around George Simion. The other group is formed by neo-fascists or, to put it more precisely, people who deny the crimes of the interwar far-right.

What does AUR seem to want?

The full name (The Alliance for the Unity of Romanians) itself references nationalist tones and alludes to the possibility of a future union between Romania and the Republic of Moldova. The acronym also means “gold”.

The party seems to draw from two main ideological groups. One is made of radical unionists gathered around George Simion. Mr Simion is a former ultra (radical football fan) and a staunch promoter of unconditional unification between Romania and the Republic of Moldova. For many years his name was associated with the all-present graffiti around the country that said “Bessarabia is Romania”. Bessarabia is the name of the historical region of which the present-day Republic of Moldova is the biggest part. 

His unionist views were so strong and expressed so unwisely that many believed him to be an agent of Moscow sent to give moderate unionism and Romania a bad name. According to at least two sources, this is also an opinion shared at least by some in the Moldovan secret service. In fact, by Mr Simion’s own account, he was once interrogated in Moldova and banned from entering the country for a while.

Another group is formed by neo-fascists or, to put it more precisely, people who deny the crimes of the interwar far-right. They are gathered around Claudiu Târziu, who leads an association called “Rost” (transl. “meaning”) that promotes such ideas. The association runs a publishing house and a website with the same name. Mr Târziu was a leading figure of the Coalition for Family, which advocated changing the Romanian Constitution to prevent any possible legalisation of gay marriage. Rost is the only association known to have been retired from the Coalition due to public outcry.

It is important to know that, in Romania, far-right ideas have been getting traction mostly through the discourse of mainstream parties. Both the liberals and social-democrats, while mostly keeping to a pro-European discourse, have ultra-conservative and nationalist elements among their rank and file and who will frequently voice such convictions freely, and with impunity from the party. Proper far-right movements have been notoriously unable to get traction ever since the dissolution of the much more notorious Greater Romania Party, and used to be a subject of jokes rather than concern. This explains, to some extent, why AUR came as a surprise even though the groups that formed the party have been known for a long time.

At an AUR electoral meeting held indoors nobody keeps the distance or wears a mask. From the party Facebook account.

Also, the party did not run on a maximalist platform but rather on a lower-key, patriotic, pro-family platform. They were staunchly opposed to anti-COVID restrictions and held a sit-in in front of the Government building for days.

Who voted for AUR?

According to exit polls, AUR voters skew younger and less educated than the average. They also tend to live either in rural Romania or in small towns (CURS data, details below).

The electoral map shows four main areas of AUR success. Moldova (East) and particularly Northern Moldova is a known hub for ultra-religious feeling. The constitutional referendum for the (heterosexual only!) family also drew support from here. Even in the urbanised county of Iasi, the AUR vote was significant, possibly due to recent conflict over holding a traditional pilgrimage during the pandemic.

Source: Alexandru F. Ghiță, interim data

The second area is Banat, in the West, where evangelical-inspired Protestant churches have long been proselytising and trying to promote their social agenda. Like Northern Moldova, the area provided support for the referendum ‘for the family’ and continues to be a hotspot for the pro-life movement. The religious agenda is not limited to the protestant churches but it has also spread to the local Orthodox and Greek Catholic clergy.

We can also see a spotty picture of AUR support throughout southern Transylvania (roughly at the centre of the map). There is no obvious explanation for this but it is worth remembering that Transylvania is the home and beacon of anti-Hungarian nationalism[2]

Dobrudja (South-East), long considered a model of multicultural integration due to Orthodox Romanians and Turkish/Tatar Muslims living together ever since Ottoman times, is the new addition to the radicalisation map. The region “hosted” a heated dispute between the local archbishop and the authorities, due to restrictions on religious activities during the pandemics. The dispute recently included a row about holding a pilgrimage to the “cave of Saint Andrew”, the purported founder of Christianity in Romania. The lawyer of the Archbishopric, Diana Şoşoacă, is a COVID-denialist who ran successfully on the AUR electoral lists.

AUR has also made great strides in the Diaspora, where it got roughly a quarter of the vote. Note that the Diaspora includes a significant number of Moldovans with dual citizenship, who live either in the Republic or in Western Europe (thanks to their Romanian passport).

How bad is it?

As AUR was entering Parliament, two other parties found themselves unable to reach the electoral threshold (the Popular Movement and Pro Romania). These parties, while nominally mainstream and, in fact, led by a former president and a former prime minister respectively, have courted nationalist and ultraconservative discourse on several occasions, hoping to compensate for the dwindling popularity of their leaders. Thus, in a sense, wannabe radicals were only replaced with truer ones!

Another result of their demise is that, in the current Parliament, it is close to impossible to build a governing majority without the parties that represent the ethnic minorities in Romania, and in particular the Hungarian minority. For obvious reasons, these minorities are expected to reject any government that would include the radical nationalists of AUR. The presence of minorities in the government could also moderate nationalist tendencies within the government parties.

We must keep in mind that this is not the first time when a brave new party, representing the younger and less educated population takes Parliament by storm. 

Comparative profile of the PP-DD voter in 2016 vs. AUR in 2020 based on exit poll data from the Centre for Urban and Regional Sociology. Note that in 2020 the exit poll underestimates the total result almost by half.

The predecessor is PP-DD (People’s Party – Dan Diaconescu). It was created by… well, Dan Diaconescu; the charismatic owner of a tabloid TV-station and it represented populism in its purest form: it promised people a good life, easily obtained. 

PP-DD got 14% percent of the vote in the 2012 elections, following the global crisis. It is not usually considered far-right as such, since it directly addressed economic hardships and showed far less interest in identity politics. But there is at least a similarity in constituencies.

PP-DD was put together hastily. Reportedly, eligible seats were bought and sold. Most analysts predicted that would impact the cohesion of the party. And indeed, it imploded during its first and only term. 

AUR comes from a stronger organisational base, but needed more than that for a win. One recruitment tool were “mystery” ads that invited citizens to change the local mayor. The link (now leading to the party website) brought the one who clicked it to an anonymous web form where they were invited to leave their data for further contact. 

“Mystery” ads run by AUR. Source: Facebook.

Also, at least one member of the AUR “Senate” (its ‘elders’) claimed that he had never joined the party in the first place. With such improvisations it seems likely that not only true-and-tested hard unionists and defenders of fascism entered Parliament, but also opportunists. Or maybe even well-meaning people who wanted to play politics a bit and were not bothered by pompous nationalist discourse.

Why did people vote for AUR?

This is, if I may, the golden question. Like in other cases of populist/extremist rise, multiple explanations are possible.

Social causes and lack of representation. It is almost a consensus that Romanian parties have lately broken much of the bound that connected them to the electorate. Governance has been negligent under both right- and left-wing parties and the voter hit by the economic downturn associated with the pandemic does not seem to find an interest in their problems from political leaders (for example, the pandemic does not appear in the short version of the electoral program, which the top three parties have been circulating).

Various kinds of dissatisfaction seem to have boiled into a protest vote. If you check out the demographic structure once more, you will see that the younger, less educated people, living in smaller communities that are less connected to prosperity, seem to be more inclined to vote for AUR. Also, it is interesting to see the results in Spain and Italy. It is generally considered that Romanians in Spain are generally better integrated; indeed, the vote for AUR, while still excellent, was 10 percentage points lower there than in Italy.

Ideology / local groups. Narratives about Romanian exceptionalism are commonplace in Romania among both politicians and voters. Going back to the map, we see how all four regions carry histories of fringe ideas and in three out of four cases, these are not recent. This is not to say that these narratives are dominant locally – in fact AUR did not win elections in any county. On the other hand, it remains entirely possible that these regional narratives do not drive the vote directly, but rather that narratives are there because they are pushed by local groups, and it is in fact the local organisers who get out the vote. 

Anti-lockdown feeling. Romanian lockdown was harsh on the economy, somewhat inconsistent, and, some would say, incompetently implemented. One could also argue that the anti-lockdown protest in Romania, though powerful, was severely underrepresented among mainstream parties. If this is the case, then AUR, even without knowing it, is an anti-lockdown party that will disappear once the epidemic is over – just as UKIP waned after Brexit.

Far-right unity. AUR seems to come out of nowhere, but it really does not; there was a nationalist vote in 2016 also[3]. At the time, the top three nationalist / far-right parties totalled ca. 5%. These have neither disappeared, nor massively lost votes. The increase in far-right voting is still worrying, but it seems a bit less incomprehensible now, especially given the factors above.

Naturally, all four hypotheses could be simultaneously true. The pandemic breeds fear. Fear increases the search for simple solutions and authoritarian leaders. Such simple solutions can be taken from the wealth of far-right ideas that are tolerated within Romanian public debate. 

Fear for one’s own health can lead and, in fact, seems to have led, to COVID-denialism as a strategy for mental welfare.

So, a party makes its appearance, bringing together existing groups, but now in better organised form, promising both salvation from exploitation from the outsiders / nefarious elites and a life without masks. Given the high degree of dissatisfaction and low turnout, it more than doubles the share of far-right votes expressed and enters Parliament.

Further analysis will tell us what combination of factors was actually involved. But it is worth noting that some of these factors allow for future growth. COVID cases may still rise after the holidays and a vaccine for the general population will likely not be available until spring at the earliest. The far-right is prone to factionalisation but, once in Parliament, may acquire a taste for unity. More local groups with their own identities could theoretically join. 

It now comes down to the mainstream parties and civil society to not only make a brute cordon sanitaire but also to address legitimate grievances and be seen to care about the will of the electorate; to keep at bay ideas and leaders, but win back the populace. AUR might make us the favour and implode on its own, but we should not count on it. For now, they plan on making a Thank You tour to 43 different places (cities and counties) across the country in their brightly coloured bus (again, not something other parties have done!).


[1] Official data for county council vote. Does not include Bucharest.

[2] Local intellectuals dispute this, saying that opinion polls show less anti-Hungarian feeling in Transylvania than elsewhere in the country. However, at least two nationalist parties – ther National Unity Party of the Romanians and Greater Romania Party – drew votes from there. Also, Cluj, the historic regional capital is home to more insidious nationalists as Ioan Aurel Pop, current president of the Romanian Academy.

[3] https://www.facebook.com/bogdan.t.enache/posts/2787979928111195

Moldova: the first ‘pas’ forward

The acronym for the group led by Maia Sandu – PAS – has a symbolic meaning in the context of the latest elections. This word means ‘step’ in Romanian, and indeed Sandu’s victory, although it was ground-breaking for all the reasons mentioned below, is only the first step on the way towards possible serious changes to the political and social situation in Moldova. On 15 November, Maia Sandu, the former prime minister of Moldova and the leader of the pro-Western Action and Solidarity Party (PAS), won the second round of the presidential elections in Moldova with 57.75%. At the same time her rival Igor Dodon, the outgoing president and the informal leader of the pro-Russian Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova (PSRM) won 42.25% of the vote. 

New elites and kingmakers from abroad

November’s elections were ground-breaking in many respects. Never before in the short history of the independent existence of the Republic of Moldova have its citizens chosen for their president a person who did not belong to the former Soviet nomenclature or was not associated with shady local political and business groups. Dodon, for example, is perceived by many as a corrupt representative of the oligarchic elites and the defender of the ‘old order’, in which the state serves primarily as an instrument for the enrichment of a specific group of people. On the other hand, the first three presidents of the republic between 1990 to 2009 had previously held high positions in the Communist Party of Moldova, the local branch of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. 

Also for the first time, the Moldovan people, who are quite conservative and have a traditional view of social roles, decided to entrust not simply a woman, but an unmarried and childless one, with the position of head of state. The gender issue, and especially Sandu’s matrimonial status, has been exploited many times in recent years by her political opponents. The absence of spouse or children allowed her political opponents to spread groundless rumours about her sexual orientation. 

Never before in the short history of the independent existence of the Republic of Moldova have its citizens chosen for their president a person who did not belong to the former Soviet nomenclature or was not associated with shady local political and business groups.

Another novelty is the role played by the diaspora. Moldovan emigrants, estimated at up to one million in number, have always shown interest in the elections held in their homeland, but the scale of their participation has never been as massive as it was in November 2020. In the second round of elections, over 260,000 votes were cast in polling stations abroad. This is twice as much as in the first round, and four times more than in the first round of the 2016 elections. Foreign votes accounted for up to 15 percent of all ballots cast. A quarter of the vote for Maia Sandu came from abroad. There is no doubt that one of the important factors that led to such a large mobilisation of the diaspora in the second round was the critical, if not mocking, comment made by President Igor Dodon after the results from the first round were released; he called the Moldovan emigrants a “parallel electorate”, and suggested that they do not fully understand the situation in the country. It is worth noting that this large-scale mobilisation for Sandu almost exclusively applied to Moldovan emigrants living in the West, i.e. the EU, Great Britain and the USA. These countries accounted for over 90% of all the votes cast outside the republic. 

Meanwhile, the Moldovan émigrés in Russia – although estimated at up to half a million – remained very passive. In the second round of elections, fewer than 14,000 of this group went to the polls; their votes accounted for only 5% of all those cast by the diaspora. Moreover, the myth that Moldovans living in Moscow or St. Petersburg are inclined to almost unanimously support pro-Russian candidates was also broken. Although Igor Dodon won in Russia with a total of 75% of the votes, the 25% Sandu won there should be considered a huge success and proof that the views of the local electorate are evolving.

The fragmentation of the left and corruption fatigue

The final result of the elections was an obvious surprise for Dodon. Even though the incumbent president had realised he could lose the race, he did not expect his rival to obtain such a crushing advantage over him. One of the key reasons for the outgoing president’s failure is the widespread accusations of corruption levelled against him. The de facto leader of the PSRM is seen by many as an associate and informal political ally of Vlad Plahotniuc, an ex-oligarch who lost power in June 2019 and fled the country. Plahotniuc is suspected to have been involved in numerous frauds (including the embezzlement of US$1 billion from the Moldovan banking sector in 2014), and he is the virtual embodiment of corruption in the eyes of the Moldovan public. Sandu took advantage of Dodon’s negative image and focused her campaign not on the usual geopolitical issues that divide the nation (the choice between East or West), but on the corruption fatigue that unites people beyond their political differences. 

Romania should therefore focus its political support for Sandu and consider increasing financial assistance to Moldova. It is also important that Bucharest becomes more actively involved in Moldova’s fight against the pandemic.

This was one key to her success, but there were other issues that undermined Dodon’s position. One of the most important was the return of Renato Usatîi, the populist, pro-Russian leader of ‘Our Party’, onto the Moldovan political scene. Six years ago, this politician was the socialists’ main rival on the Moldovan left. In 2014, just a few days before voting, a court (presumably influenced by Plahotniuc) banned Usatîi’s party from participating in the parliamentary elections, which enabled the socialists to achieve a spectacular success. Soon after, Usatîi left Moldova and moved to Russia. He only came back to his homeland in the second half of 2019, after Plahotniuc had fled the country. His return initiated the fragmentation of the Moldovan political left. The leader of ‘Our Party’, who has been highly critical of Dodon’s presidency, managed to rebuild his support in just over a year and win up to 17% of the votes in the first round of the presidential elections. This allowed Sandu to enter the second round in first place, which demobilised the socialist voters. Moreover, Usatîi asked his electorate to vote ‘against Dodon’ in the runoff elections. As a result, many of his supporters decided not to vote in the second round, or to cast their vote for Sandu, which – in both cases – contributed to victory for the leader of PAS.

What can a president do?

The limited prerogatives that the Moldovan constitution gives to the president will not allow Sandu to implement real structural reforms. However, this does not mean that her victory has no political significance. From her new post Sandu will be able to observe more closely what is happening behind the scenes and monitor the government’s actions. She will also gain access to materials prepared by the intelligence services. The office of the presidency will also provide her with greater recognition and access to the media. This in turn will boost the image of the opposition. She will also be able to influence the country’s foreign policy, which would be particularly important, as in the months to come Sandu will surely focus on diplomatic activities and try to improve Moldova’s relations with its Western partners from the EU, as well as its immediate neighbours Romania and Ukraine. 

There is no doubt that Usatîi’s return to the Moldovan political scene will have negative consequences for the situation in Moldova in the long run.

Apart from corruption, Sandu laid the emphasis in her campaign on social issues and improving the citizens’ standard of living. Romania should therefore focus its political support for Sandu and consider increasing financial assistance to Moldova. It is also important that Bucharest becomes more actively involved in Moldova’s fight against the pandemic. Not only will this have a positive effect on the image of Sandu and the opposition (as the electorate will see it as a direct benefit of her victory), but it will also improve the perception of Romania in Moldova, which was damaged by the fact that in recent years Bucharest unofficially but clearly supported Plahotniuc. There is also no doubt that support from the EU (which will help improve the quality of life of the country’s inhabitants) will be of great importance in building confidence in the pro-Western opposition. Relations with Russia are likely to deteriorate, despite the new president’s desire to pursue a balanced foreign policy. Sandu will find it hard to avoid difficult topics such as the issue of Russian troops in Transnistria or the status of this region, as shown also by her recent media statements, which have elicited negative reactions from Moscow.

On the home front

PAS, strengthened by Sandu’s victory, will call for parliamentary elections to be held as soon as possible. To start real reforms and deliver on Sandu’s election promises, the pro-European opposition needs not only the president, but also a parliamentary majority. This will not be an easy task, although the situation in the Moldovan parliament seems to be favourable. The Chicu government does not currently have a majority in the chamber. After Dodon’s dramatic failure, his party is no longer interested in early parliamentary elections, although the incumbent president had supported them just a few months ago. The socialists are not only afraid of the pro-Western electorate motivated by Sandu’s victory; more importantly, they realise that in the next elections they will undoubtedly face ‘Our Party’, which – judging by Usatîi’s result – may take away a lot of votes from PSRM. It is therefore clear that in this situation the socialists will attempt to rebuild their majority and maintain the current composition of parliament, at all costs and for as long as possible. Even though this will be difficult, there has been speculation about alleged agreements between the socialists and representatives of the Şor Party, together with a group of deputies affiliated to Plahotniuc. The true position of the ‘DA’ Platform Party led by Andrei Năstase is also uncertain. This grouping, although nominally pro-Western, has found itself increasingly at odds with PAS. Moreover, given the low support for ‘DA’, early elections could pose a threat to this party’s presence in the parliament. All these factors may foster the establishment of cooperation between ‘DA’ and the Socialists. There is no doubt that Usatîi’s return to the Moldovan political scene will have negative consequences for the situation in Moldova in the long run. This controversial politician, who has strong but very obscure ties to Russia, will probably try to position himself as Sandu’s ally in the fight against corruption and the oligarchy, although in geopolitical terms he is an opponent of PAS. As a result, his actions may compromise the opposition’s pro-reformist efforts. Establishing any cooperation with him or his associates should therefore be undertaken very carefully, if at all. Otherwise, PAS risks a repeat of the scenario from the end of the second half of 2019, when it was pushed out of power after just five months due to an agreement between the Socialists and the Democratic Party, which was previously led and sponsored by Plahotniuc.

‘If the EU fails, we can say goodbye to the liberal order’ – an interview with Samir Saran, President of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), New Delhi.

To what extent is Europe important for the future of the world order? Europeans feel like they count less and less on the world scene.

Europe is, paradoxically, the single most important geography that will define the future trajectory of the global order. If Europe remains rooted in its fundamental principles – of being democratic, open, liberal, plural, supporting a transparent and open market economy, defending rule of law, the rights of individuals, freedom of speech – the world will have a chance of being liberal. If the European Union is split between the north and south, east and west and we see a large part of it deciding to give up on the Atlantic project and align with more authoritarian regimes – which is quite tempting, due to the material side attached to the choice – that will be the end of the Atlantic project. An EU that is not united in its ethics is an EU that will eventually write its own demise. How will Europe swing? Will it be an actor, or will it be acted upon? 

I have the belief that post-pandemic EU, as a political actor, will see a new lease of life. A new political EU may be born as the pandemic ends. Unless that happens, I believe this is the end of the European Union itself. It is a do it or lose it moment. Unless Europe becomes strategically far more aggressive, far more expansive, aware of its role, obligations and destiny you will see an EU that fades. For me, the most important known unknown is the future of Europe. Will the EU hold? Will the 17+1 become more powerful than the EU 27? Which way will the wind blow on the continent? Will it really be the bastion of the liberal order or will the liberal order be buried in Europe?

The Indo-Pacific is the frontline for European safety

We’ve been used to only existing as part of the transatlantic relationship. In the past few decades, Europe has never really seen itself as an individual actor, but rather in coordination with the US. That is something that is starting to shake now. Do you see Europe acting on its own terms, as a global actor, in the positive case in which the member states do get their act together? Are we rather going to continue to act together with the US? Or find some other partners?

I suspect that with Brexit, you might see a far more cohesive EU, organised around the French military doctrine and French military posture. With an absent UK, I have the feeling that the political cohesion of the EU will increase and that the EU will be far more coordinated in its approach to the geostrategic and geopolitical questions. France realises that by itself, without the size of the EU, it might not be a significant actor. A French military presence will be compelling only if it acts on behalf of the EU.

Europe believed that it could change China by engaging with them, however I suspect China will change the EU before the EU changes China.

In terms of other partners, Europe has made one error. Europe believed that it could change China by engaging with them, however I suspect China will change the EU before the EU changes China. The mistake that the EU makes is that it imagines that an economic and trading partnership will create a degree of political consensus in Beijing. Nevertheless, Beijing is not interested in politics, but in controlling European markets. 

What Europe should do is to consider the importance of India. If the European continent needs to retain its plural characteristics, South Asia is the frontline. What is happening today between India and China is actually a frontline debate on the future of the world order. The Himalayan standoff is just the first of the many that are likely to happen unless this one is responded to. If China is able to change the shape of Asia and recreate the hierarchical Confucian order, don’t be surprised if the fate of Europe will follow the same path. If Europe needs to feel secure in its own existence it needs to create new strong local partnerships – with India, Australia, Indonesia, Japan. The EU needs to see itself as an Indo-Pacific power. The Indo-Pacific is the frontline for European safety. If the Indo-Pacific was to go the other way, the mainland is not going to be safe.

What do you think about the CEE’s role in the new emerging order? We see an increased competition for hearts and minds here. How could India help, in an environment of increased competition and active engagement of China in this space?

The Central Europeans are going to be the centre of attention for many actors. China will buy their love, America will give military assurances and so on. In the near future, many actors will realise the importance of the CEE, simply because it is these countries that will decide which way Europe finally turns. In some ways they are the swing countries, the swing nations that are going to decide whether Europe remains loyal to the ideals of its past or decides to have a new path. CEE countries are in many ways the decisive countries.

CEE has two important options and two important pressures. The options: will they be able to create a consensus (between the Chinese, the Russians, the Old Europe and the new countries like India) or will they be an arena for conflict? Can we create a ‘Bucharest consensus’, where the East and the West, North and the South build a new world order and the new rules for the next 7 decades? If you play it wrong you might become the place where the powers contest, compete and create a mess.

There are also two pressures. Firstly, there is an economic divide in Europe. You are at a lower per capita income, you need to find investment funds for the infrastructure, employment, livelihoods and growth, which results in an economic pressure that needs to be tackled. Therefore, Europe will have to decide if the provenence of the money matters. Does it matter if it is red or green? Does it matter if they come from the West or the East? That is one pressure that needs consideration. How do you meet your own aspirations, while being political about it? 

The other pressure is the road you want to take. How do you envisage the future? Is it going to be a future built on cheap manufacturing? Being an advanced technological society, are you going to be the rule-maker of the Fourth Industrial Revolution or its rule-taker? Secondly, the nature of the economic growth that you are investing in becomes another pressure. This is the second choice that the CEE will have to make. In that sense, I believe that India becomes an actor. As we have experienced this in the past 20 years, we are one of the swing nations that could decide the nature of the world order, thus we may share this experience with you. We have also decided that we don’t want to be a low-cost manufacturing economy like China, but rather a value-creating economy, building platforms. Even if we have a small economic size, we have a billion-people digital platforms, digital cash system, AI laboratories and solutions. 

What is happening today between India and China is actually a frontline debate on the future of the world order. If China is able to change the shape of Asia and recreate the hierarchical Confucian order, don’t be surprised if the fate of Europe will follow the same path.

As we move into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the tyranny of distance between Europe and India disappears. We don’t have to worry about trade links, land routes and shipping lines. Bits and bites can flow quite rapidly. As we move to the age of 3D printing, to the age of quantum computing, of big data and autonomous systems, the arena where we can cooperate becomes huge. 

India gives Europe room to manoeuvre, room to choose. When it comes to choosing, besides the traditional American and Chinese propositions, there is also a third one – India, a billion-people market.

Do you expect that there is going to be a shift in the EU toward reshoring and ensuring that manufacturing is not captive to Chinese interests or to Chinese belligerence?

I think that we are going to see a degree of reshoring everywhere. It is not going to be only a European phenomenon. Political trust is going to become important. Political trust and value-chains are going to affect one another. Countries are going to be more comfortable with partners who are like-minded. They don’t have to agree on everything, but they should be on the same ideological and political spectrum. 

There are two reasons for this. One is the pandemic that we are currently facing and in a way it exposed the fragility of globalisation as we know it. The hippie and gypsy styles of globalisation are over. I think that people are going to make far more political decisions. The second is that as we start becoming more digitalised societies, individual data and individual space are going to be essential, thus you don’t want those data sets to be shared with countries whose systems you don’t trust. Value is going to increasingly emerge through intimate industrial growth, far more intimate in character – it is going to be about the organs inside your body, it is going to be about the personal experiences, about how we live, transact, date or elect. They are all intimate value chains. The intimate value-chains will require far greater degree of thought than the mass production factories that created value in the XXth century.

The EU may be setting the format for managing our contested globalisation

You mention the rising value of trust, as a currency even. In Europe, we often point out that we are an alliance based on values. But even our closest partner, the US seems to be moving in a much more transactional direction, let alone China and others. You are describing a worldview that is relying increasingly on shared values, at least some capacity to negotiate some common ground, on predictability, whereas in many ways it seems that things are moving in the opposite direction, a much more Realpolitik one. Is this something that is going to last?

The pandemic has brought this trend to the fore. People are going to appreciate trust and value systems more than ever. But I think this was inevitable. If you would recall, India used to be quite dismissive of the EU, calling it “an Empire of gnomes”, with no strategic clout. But if you look at the last two years, India has started to absorb, and in a sense to propose solutions that the EU itself has implemented in the past. India came up with an investment infrastructure framework in the Indo-Pacific that should not create debt trap diplomacy, should create livelihoods, respect the environment and recognise the rights and sovereignty of the people. India came up with this when it saw that the Chinese were breaking all rules and all morality to capture industrial infrastructure spaces. The Americans under Donald Trump also came up with the Blue Dot American project for the Indo-Pacific – a framework that was based on values. Whenever you have to deal with a powerful political opponent you throw the rule book in there. If you don’t want to go to war with them, you will have to manage them through a framework of laws, rules and regulations. The value systems are a very political choice. They are practices and choices enshrined in our constitutions and foundational documents. Therefore, dismissing values and norms as being less political or less muscular is wrong. The EU, “the empire of gnomes” that was much criticised for the first two decades as weak and not geopolitical enough, may well become an example for other countries. If it remains solvent, a vibrant union, and if it is not salami-sliced by the Chinese in the next decade, the EU may well be setting the format for managing our contested globalisation.

This pandemic is the first global crisis where Captain America is missing

How does India see the future of the Quad? Usually the Quad is associated with a certain vision of the Indo – Pacific, free from coercion and open to unhindered navigation and overflight. Are we going to see the emergence of a more formal geopolitical alignment or even an alliance to support a certain vision about Asia?

The Quad is going to acquire greater importance in the coming years. It is going to expand beyond its original 4 members. We’ve already seen South Korea and the Philippines joining the discussion recently. We are going to see greater emphasis by all members doing a number of manoeuvres, projects and initiatives together. The next 5 years will be the age of the Quad. The pandemic started this process. I see three areas where the Quad can be absolutely essential.

One is in delivering global public goods, keeping the sea lines open and uncontested so that trade, energy and people can move with a degree of safety and stability. In a sense, I see the Quad replacing the Pax Americana that was underwriting stability in certain parts of the world. 

The second area is going to be around infrastructure and investments in certain parts of the world. I see the Quad grouping many initiatives that will allow for big investments in countries which currently have only one option – China. The Quad will be able to spawn a whole new area of financial, infrastructure and technology instruments closer to the needs of Asians, South Asian, East African, West Asians including the Pacific Islands. The Quad will be the basis of this kind of relationships in the upcoming years.

Thirdly and most importantly, the role of the Quad will be to ensure that we won’t reach a stage where we have to reject the Chinese. None of us wants a ‘No China’ world, because all of us benefit from China’s growth and economic activities. Many of us have concluded that the only way to keep the Chinese honest in their engagements, economical or political, is to be able to put together a collective front in front of them, not negotiate individually. The EU has done that longer than anyone else and that’s why the Chinese don’t like the EU and apply a ‘divide and conquer’ methodology to get more favourable deals. The Quad is in many ways an expression of that reality, as well of that the middle powers in Asia and Pacific (Indonesia, Australia and Japan) will have to work together, sometimes without the Americans, to negotiate new terms of trade and new energy, or technological arrangements. The Quad in many ways is also the ‘make China responsible’ arrangement, an accountability framework which will keep the Chinese honest and responsible actors in the global system.  

The next 5 years will be the age of the Quad. The Quad in many ways is also the ‘make China responsible’ arrangement, an accountability framework which will keep the Chinese honest and responsible actors in the global system.

Do you also see this trend extending into the political sphere in a kind of collective endeavour both in Asia (through the Quad) and in the West (starting with Europe perhaps) to build a new kind of world order? Do you feel that this ‘middle powers concert’ is one possible way to go? Or do you believe that we are going to be disappointed, as we were by the BRICs, when some of the members drowned in their own domestic problems? 

We are part of a world that doesn’t have any superpowers. The last superpower was America, and that ended with the financial crisis ten years ago. Ever since, we have been literally in a world which had quasi-superpowers like the US, to some extent Russia, the Chinese, but there was no real hegemon that could punish people for bad behaviour and reward people for good behaviour. 

Some of the most interested actors in the Indo-Pacific in the last two to three years happened to be the UK and France. A few years ago, they sensed that if they want to be relevant in the future world order, as it is built and as it emerges, they need to be present in the debates that are unfolding in this part of the world. Both partnered with India – to do military manoeuvres, to create maritime domain awareness stations, to invest in infrastructure and to create clearly the beginnings of a new order that might emerge from here. We will have to create these coalitions to be able to get things done.

The pandemic tells us something which is also quite tragic. Ever since I was born I have never witnessed a global crisis that did not have America as a response leader. This pandemic is the first global crisis where Captain America is missing. What makes it even more complicated is that the successor to Captain America has caused the crisis. Hence, you have the old power, which is absent and engrossed in its own domestic realities, and the new power that has been irresponsible and has put us in this position. Both the previous incumbent and the new contender don’t have the capacity to take action in this world by themselves. This tells us that building a coalition of middle powers is absolutely essential. It is not a luxury, it is not a choice. This is something concerning our own existential reasons that we must invest in.

Do you see this coalition of middle powers as some sort of a ’league of democracies’? It is a concept that was previously advanced by John McCain and now Joe Biden is embracing as his overarching framework for foreign policy. Do you see the potential for creating this league of democracies as some sort of manager and defender of the liberal international order?

I think it is inevitable. Technology is so intimate that we are not going to trust our data with folks we have a suspicion about. Thus, it is this reality that makes this coalition of democracies and like-minded countries inevitable. Even if we may never call it that, it is going to become that. We are going to notice countries engaging in these intimate industries with others who are similar, who are like-minded, who have similar worldviews. Still, this process may take longer than we have. We do not have the luxury of time, because we are going to be destroyed, divided, decimated and sliced in the meantime.

A few countries will have to take leadership – either the French, the UK, the EU itself, or India, or all of them. Until there is an agreement on a big vision for the new world order we must agree to an interim arrangement and have to create a bridging mechanism that takes us from the turmoil of the first two decades of this century to a more stable second half of the century. We don’t want to go through two world wars in order to achieve this unity, as we did in the past century. We need to have some other mechanisms that will prevent conflict, but preserve ethics. 

In this context the EU-India and the CEE-India projects are essential. It is us who have the most at stake, because our future is on the line. The more the world is in turmoil, the less we will be able to grow sustainably. It is our interest to create and invest in institutions and informal institutions that could preserve a degree of values and allow for stability.

Such a coalition reuniting countries from Central Europe, Western Europe and from Asia (such as India, Australia, Japan) will normalise the behaviour of both America and China. I do not think that they behaved responsibly in the last few years – one because of its democratic insanity, and the second because of its absolutist medieval mindset. Along these lines, you have democratic failure at one end and a despotic emergence at the other end. We need to ensure that democracy will survive and that the middle powers will be able to normalise this moment.

What is Russia’s role in all this? Is Russia going to be on our side? Or is it going to be on China’s – considering that sometimes they seem to, although their agendas perhaps align only when it is opportune for both of them?

Russia has an odd reality. It is a country that has a very modest GDP (the second smallest within the BRICs) but it is also a country that is possibly the second most powerful military force in the world. A big military actor with a very small economic size. This is creates a policy asymmetry in Moscow. It has very little stakes in global economic stability or global economic progress, but it has huge clout in the political consequences of developments around the world. The Russians have somehow to be mainstreamed into our economic future. Unless Russia is going to have an active role in the Fourth Industrial Revolution or have real benefits, their economy will stay in the 20th century and therefore their politics is going to reflect a 20th century mindset. If they are included in the economic policies of the future, their politics will evolve too. It is not an easy transition. Nevertheless I would argue that the Russians have to be given more room in European thinking so that they don’t feel boxed into the Chinese corner. The last thing that we should be thinking of is giving Russia no option but to partner with the Chinese. Perhaps the immediate neighbours (the CEE) will not be open to a partnership, taking into account their political history. But countries like India would be able to offer space for manoeuvre. In that sense, India could be a market, a consumer, an investor in the Russian economic future and the CEE-India partnership could become important. Can we together play a role in normalising that relationship? Can we give the Russians an option other than China? If Russia’s economic future is linked to ours, it doesn’t have to be in the Chinese corner. The Russians are not the Chinese. The Chinese take hegemony to a whole new level; the Russians have this odd asymmetry that defines their place in the world. This asymmetry should be addressed with new economic possibilities and incentives. 

The rise of the Middle Kingdom

We’ve been discussing how to react to a world that is increasingly defined by China. But what are China’s plans? What does China want? 

I do not know their plans, but I can tell you how I see China’s emergence, from New Delhi. I define it through what I call the 3M framework.

Firstly, I see them increasingly becoming the Middle Kingdom. Chinese exceptionalism is defined in those terms. They believe they have a special place in the world – between heaven and earth. They will continue to defy the global rules and they will not allow the global pressures to alter their national behaviour or domestic choices.  So we will see the first M, the Middle Kingdom, emerge more strongly in the years ahead.

This pandemic is the first global crisis where Captain America is missing. What makes it even more complicated is that the successor to Captain America has caused the crisis.

Secondly, this Middle Kingdom will make use of modern tools. They see Modernity as a tool, not as an experience. In that sense they use it to strengthen the Middle Kingdom, not to reform and evolve. Such tools include digital platforms, the control of media and a modern army with modern weapons to control and dominate. 

Thirdly, the final M deals with a Medieval mindset. They are a Middle Kingdom with Modern tools and a Medieval mindset that believes in a hierarchical world. We are a world which has moved away from the hierarchies of the past. The world is more flat, people have equal relationships. The Chinese don’t see it like that. They see a hierarchical world, where countries must pay tribute to them. They sometimes use the Belt and Road Initiative to create the tribute system or the debt trap diplomacy to buy sovereignty. Likewise, they use other tools to ensure the subordination of the countries they deal with.

These three Ms are defining the China of today.

Samir Saran curates the Raisina Dialogue, India’s annual flagship platform on geopolitics and geo-economics, and chairs CyFy, India’s annual conference on cyber security and internet governance. He is also the Director of the Centre for Peace and Security at the Sardar Patel Police University, Jodhpur, India. He writes frequently on issues of global governance, climate change, energy policy, global development architecture, artificial intelligence, cyber security, internet governance, and India’s foreign policy and authored four books, the latest of which is called ‘The New World Disorder’. 

The interview was conducted by Oana Popescu and Octavian Manea, as part of the Central Europe-India Forum Initiative created by the Observer Research Foundation (India), Keynote (Czechia) and GlobalFocus Center (Romania).

“It is more than a trade war between US and China, it is a hegemonic rivalry” – an interview with Kuni Miyake

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies in Tokyo. A former career diplomat, Miyake also serves as special adviser to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s Cabinet. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the Japanese government.

How would you characterise the post-COVID Indo-Pacific security ecosystem from a Japanese perspective?

One thing is for sure: pandemics accelerate and in many cases deteriorate already-existing tendencies. For this reason, I focus on the big trends. In the case of East Asia there are several such tendencies. One, China is on the rise. Two, the United States is becoming more and more inward-looking, if not isolationist. What’s happening now is quite similar to what we witnessed in the 1930s: you have a new rising regional power that considers the status quo as something to be adjusted, and therefore it can be changed even by force. With that in mind, the rising power challenges American hegemony in the Western Pacific by force. That is exactly what Japan did in the 1930s, but China is doing it on a scale 10 times bigger. In the case of Japan we attacked Pearl Harbor and we started a war. China is not that stupid. But nationalism is an opium. Once you start using it, you cannot stop it until you destroy yourself. That happened to Japan, and I am afraid that something similar could happen to China. These trends have been exacerbated and accelerated. 

Nationalism is an opium. Once you start using it, you cannot stop it until you destroy yourself.

What would you expect to be the key pillars of post-Abe foreign policy? What will change? What will be the continuities?

Shinzo Abe is one of the few politicians in my country who really understands the global strategic environment and the imperative to maximise the national interests in the middle of such difficult circumstances. Fortunately, he stayed in power for almost eight years. If you have this time you can create a sort of a legacy which could last longer. Mr. Suga has no choice because he was part of the Abe foreign policy. I always say that foreign policy is also politics, and all politics is local. If you want to make a commitment in your foreign policy, the biggest opponent are not the foreigners but your fellow citizens inside your country who are opposed to new ideas. Therefore, in order to achieve a diplomatic goal, you need to convince the opponents inside your country. That is something Abe did and Mr. Suga did himself. That’s why I call Mr. Suga a part of the Abe foreign policy. He will just continue doing it. But Shinzo Abe was a Ferrari, a super car, and even if you drive a super car, if the streets are congested you cannot go anywhere. Mr. Suga is no Ferrari or Lamborghini, but if you find the right route and streets, you can go anywhere. Abe created a great environment for Japan to maximise its national interests. Abe’s legacy will stay.

The most worrying issue is the outcome of the US elections. This is a wild card. If Trump is re-elected we know how to deal with it. If Biden becomes president, probably his policy wouldn’t be dramatically different from the current administration. The main reason is that the geopolitical transformation in East Asia has been so drastic that it has really started a strategic rivalry between US and China. This is more than a trade war, it is a hegemonic rivalry. The Americans fear that one day China might challenge the U.S. hegemony in the Western Pacific and even replace the US in East Asia. This is not something episodic, but a strategic and structural trend which the pandemic has accelerated.

A key component of Abe’s foreign policy legacy is the Quad. How does Japan see the future of the Quad? What is the next stage in the development of the Quad? 

Too frequently we refer to China and the CCP. The Quad is not an alliance, the Quad is not NATO. It is a much looser sort of a forum because we don’t want to define it clearly. If you define it clearly then only a limited number of countries can participate. So we should make it open. India has finally joined. It took us 14 years. We started talking about the Quad in 2006. Foreign Minister Taro Aso told US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice in Hanoi in November 2006 that it was important for Japan, Australia, India, and the US to get together to discuss security issues in the Asia-Pacific, but at that time Ms. Rice did not respond positively. We may not see an expanded Quad in the foreseeable future. But what is more important is to keep the Quad united, to make it as loose as possible, so that more countries can join later in the future. The Quad is a good idea, but it is not NATO and shouldn’t be another NATO.

The Quad is not an alliance, the Quad is not NATO and shouldn’t be another NATO.

In June the implementation of the Aegis Ashore anti-missile system was canceled by Japan. At the same time there is currently a major debate in Japan about whether the SDF should develop counterattack capabilities, specifically acquiring attack missiles. What do these trends suggest about the national security policy, specifically about deterrence? 

Here the real issue is how we define our defence policy. There is a very long debate about what we mean by ‘exclusively defence-oriented’ defence policy. Exclusively defensive defence policy means nothing. It is a tautology. It is a strange kind of debate which we have continued for the past 60-plus years. It is time to rethink it because our potential adversaries have more military capability than before, and that requires more deterrent capability on the part of the Japanese side. Therefore it is not a debate between whether or not we should be able to attack enemy bases. It is not that simple. What is more important is a discussion about the qualification of the exclusively defensive posture of our defence policy. My argument is very simple, because defence policy consists of two elements: deterrence and attack capabilities. So try to deter your potential adversary first (so enhance the deterrence power to discourage enemy attacks), and if the deterrence fails you should be able to attack. As far as Japan is concerned, under the current constitution, we should put more emphasis on the deterrence side rather than the attack element. It is time for us to adopt a ‘deterrence-oriented’ defence posture.

Is Washington’s plan to withdraw troops from Germany particularly worrying for Japan? Do you see any ripple effects for the broader US posture in the Indo-Pacific, or questions about US credibility? 

The question is what are the stakes of the US presence in Europe and East Asia? There is of course the cultural angle – we are allies and share the same values. But the US is also a naval maritime power in the Indo-Pacific, where the economies are growing fastest. Therefore, the US might withdraw some troops from Europe to reinforce the deterrence posture in the Indo-Pacific area. But of course, this shouldn’t be a zero-sum game. You have more US Army troops in Europe while we have more US naval capabilities. In Asia what we need are the amphibious Marine units who can fight on the waters. It is a delicate balance, but the Europeans may have to keep in mind that the American priority has already shifted from Europe and the Middle East to Asia.

What does China’s most recent international behaviour (the border clash, the knock-out of Hong Kong freedoms, the bullying of Taiwan) expose about Beijing, its plans, ambitions and grand strategy? For sure this is no longer Deng Xiaoping’s China – “Keep a cool head and maintain a low profile” mind-set. Is this a sort of a wake-up moment? 

The reasons behind the recent self-assertiveness are the following.

Firstly: China is now a major power. It is not weak anymore. It has enough military power to realise its military and political ambitions. Secondly: the element of nationalism as part of the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party. The legitimacy of the CCP consists of three pillars: China is one and united; their victory over Japan in the Patriotic War; and they finally found the third, which is the economic development in the late 1970s. This last element really divided the nation, because it widened the gap between the rich and poor. This is something that over time will destroy the legitimacy of the CCP. That’s why these days they have become excessively dependent on the nationalistic propaganda. The danger is that it is like opium, because once you start using it, you cannot stop it. 

Thirdly: the imperial personality of Xi Jinping. He thinks that it is time for China to strike back. With these three elements combined, China cannot stop assuming an assertive posture in the foreseeable future.

Xi Jinping thinks that it is time for China to strike back. China cannot stop assuming an assertive posture in the foreseeable future. 

When you visited Bucharest a few years back you warned about a power vacuum in the South China Sea that Beijing will take advantage of. What are/should be the lessons to be learned by the international community from the South China Sea? 

It is too late. We missed the opportunity a few years ago before they started landfilling and creating artificial islands. Once they were there and deployed all the weapons systems it became too late. In wartime these are highly vulnerable, but in peacetime it means that China is dominant inside the first island chain. We are located on the first island chain. As the US Marines say, they are already in the area and they are not going to move away. They are there to stay and defend their positions. What we can do now is to prevent the Chinese Navy especially from going out of the first island chain. In order to do that they will need more powerful platforms, which will be basically very vulnerable as the American forces transform in the future. 

Biden or Trump? Who is better for the US system of alliances?

Japan is an exception. Japan is the only nation among the allies of the United States which benefited most from the Trump Administration. Europeans suffered more than they gained. Of course, we suffered too because of the inherent unpredictability of the administration. A Biden presidency will be much more predictable. If Donald Trump is elected again maybe Shinzo Abe can play a role again. If I were Mr. Suga, I would nominate Abe as his special envoy.

Are you worried about intra-Democratic party ‘civil war’ between the Biden moderates and the radicalised progressive wing?

Yes, once Biden wins, another battle among the Democrats will resume. I hope this will not damage the foreign and defence policy of the Democratic party.

SPECIAL BRIEF: Iran’s endgame – between American sanctions and the Covid-19 pandemic

ABSTRACT

COVID-19’s impact on Iran’s already pressured economy is no secret. The pandemic is reducing the government’s income and increasing its expenses. Iran’s fragile economy will endure even more pressure in the coming months, yet the aggressive dialogue between Tehran and Washington is business as usual. Some argue the Iranian regime may not survive the coronavirus crisis. Others are warning that the regime is taking the people of Iran hostage by means of the pandemic. The embargo, put in place by the United States, is only exacerbating the Iranian people’s precarious living conditions. Which are the possible scenarios for US-Iran relations? Escalation, de-escalation or the status quo? This essay aims to present three possible scenarios that could describe the future of the US-Iran relationship and its implication for the European Union. A return to the past – a hypothesis in which the aggressive dialogue would continue without a constructive finality; Iran’s emergence as a regional hegemon; or a Western burst of action – where the European signatories of the JCPOA could decide whether to continue to support the nuclear deal or change the discourse, supporting Washington in its bid to negotiate a new deal.

The impact of the COVID-19

Since announcing its first COVID-19 fatalities, on 19 February 2020, in the holy city of Qom, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been the Middle Eastern country most badly affected by the pandemic, reporting infection and fatality rates among the highest in the world. As this essay is being written, in October 2020, there have been 588,648 coronavirus cases, and the death toll currently stands at 33,714. At the end of the month the numbers reached new heights, with an average of 300 daily deaths. The measures taken have been halting and ineffective, and the response to the pandemic has been a mixture of responsible warnings from public health officials, inconsistent government’ policies and conspiracy theories spread by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Two days after Iran’s February parliamentary elections – which despite the virus did take place, albeit amid historically low turnout – Imam Khamenei referred to what he called the large-scale propaganda from foreign media calling on the ’people not to participate in the elections, pointing out, “This negative propaganda began a few months ago and increased as the elections approached. In the last two days, the pretext of an illness and virus was used, and their media did not miss the slightest opportunity to discourage people from voting”. 

Restrictions and measures aimed at limiting the virus’ spread were implemented in phases: on 23 February, the government ordered universities to close in some provinces and cancelled all cultural events; on 28 February, it called off Friday prayers and gatherings, followed by the closure of all academic institutions; on 5 March, it shuttered all sports venues, followed by religious shrines on 13 March, and a few days later travel between cities was banned.Moreover, by 17 March , Iran released 85,000 prisoners to prevent outbreaks of the virus in detention centres. Meanwhile, the Iranian government’s judgment continued to be marked by a combination of cynicism and religious ideology. Moreover, beyond the momentum of COVID-19, the theocratic government in Tehran is facing a set of challenges whose simultaneous pressure could, in the foreseeable future, cause a new wave of social movements, which would put Iran in the unprecedented situation of managing the fourth consecutive year marked by revolts of society. Under the weight of severe economic sanctions, unemployment and inflation have been rising while GDP is shrinking by 6% per annum. However, the Iranian regime has proved remarkably stable, at least for the time being, as it continues to strengthen its regional influence and even to expand its nuclear programme.

At first, the spread of COVID-19 seemed to provide an opportunity for Washington and Tehran to move away, at least temporarily, from aggressive dialogue and politics. The United States has provided nearly $274 million in aid to Iran, a sum which the Trump administration set aside for emergency international humanitarian funding. Also, Iran has released the US Army veteran and cancer patient Michael White from prison, who was handed over to Swiss diplomats (over time Switzerland has provided a channel of communication between these longtime foes). Furthermore, some US diplomats have demanded the release of at least four other Americans allegedly detained by Tehran, but Iranian decision-makers rejected Washington’s medical aid and did not respond to its request regarding the alleged American prisoners. The Trump administration responded by increasingsanctions on Iran; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused the Iranian leadership “trying to avoid responsibility for their grossly incompetent and deadly governance”, alleging that “the Wuhan virus is a killer and the Iranian regime is an accomplice”. However, not only did the economic sanctions fail to bring about the desired outcome – which comes as no surprise – in fact, they have led to the strengthening of the ultra-conservative political faction. It is difficult to draw a clear line between Iranian political leaders, but what is certain is that the current president Hassan Rouhani, along with politicians associated with the foreign minister Javad Zarif, overcame nationalist pride and led Iran to the negotiating table with the West. Even though the mass demonstrations which began during the winter of 2017 and peaked in December 2019 showed that Iranian society is deeply dissatisfied with its government, public opinion of the American administration is even more hostile. In January 2020, hundreds of thousands of Iranians mourned the death of General Qassem Soleimani – killed by an American drone strike – in one of the largest mass demonstrations the country has ever seen. Not everyone venerated Soleimani, who supported a campaign to expand Iranian influence through proxy wars in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen; but his assassination was a blow to national pride.

Iranian hardliners, the main beneficiaries of the current US administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ strategy, may see this as an unprecedented opportunity to do what the Iranian elite has rejected in the past – leave the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Non-Proliferation Treaty Nuclear (NPT), and then resume the nuclear programme. For the European Union this scenario means that its worst prediction –several European leaders have warned the Trump administration that withdrawing from the JCPOA would trigger a chain of escalation with Iran – are becoming reality. The nuclear deal remains at the heart of EU policy toward Iran; however, if Tehran takes further drastic steps in violation of the agreement terms, this scenario could mark the total collapse of the agreement. The EU and its former member, the United Kingdom, have so far resisted joining Washington’s calls for ‘maximum pressure’, and will need to prepare for a worse security dynamic across the Middle East if Tehran decides to escalate. However, given the latest events in France and the series of statement on the terrorist attacks made by the French President, Emmanuel Macron, Tehran – even though President Macron has not named the Islamic Republic as a perpetrator of extreme religious manifestation – has added its voice to the choir of Macron’s critics (UK, Kuwait, Qatar, Palestine, Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey). Such a gesture has the potential to distance France from the group of states that advocate the preservation of the nuclear agreement, and may create the preconditions for Paris to align itself with the US stance in future.

The American ‘maximum pressure’ approach encountered maximum resistance from Tehran, which has led to an escalation of repressive or aggressive actions on both sides.

The pandemic is having its geopolitical impact against the backdrop of the wider US-Iran animosity that has grown steadily since president Donald Trump decided to unilaterally withdraw the US from the JCPOA on 8 May 2018. The American ‘maximum pressure’ approach encountered maximum resistance from Tehran, which has led to an escalation of repressive or aggressive actions on both sides. General Soleimani’s killing was followed by a rocket attack in Iraq, claimed by an Iran-backed paramilitary group, against Camp Taji on March 2020, when three members of the US-led counter-ISIS coalition were killed and twelve were injured; another barrage upon the same facility three days later injured three US troops. While escalatory dynamics have so far been kept in check, the equilibrium is fragile and often broken by continuous escalations and counter-escalations from both Washington and Tehran – and their proxies. Normally, whenever adversaries are confronted with common transnational threats, their propensity to adopt flexible and cooperative behaviours to protect themselves increases. Even staunch adversaries like the US and Iran have had a history of cooperation against common threats in the post-1979 period. Historical cases include the early years of the war in Afghanistan (1), the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and the recent fight against ISIS. On these occasions, both sides have temporarily de-escalated tensions, or have at least refrained from embarking on major confrontations. In addition, the emergence of common threats sets new limits to the continuation of regular policies. For example, during the Iraqi war, the US military’s operational need to safely escape Iraqi air defence by traversing into western Iranian airspace forced politicians in Washington to tone down their anti-Iranian rhetoric

Nevertheless, not much has changed in the US-Iran conflict since the pandemic’s outbreak. Despite expert advices and international calls, the US administration has refused to temporarily ease the sanctions regime and facilitate Iran’s purchase of much-needed medical equipment on the international market. At the same time, Iran has not shown any intention to revisit its offensive strategy against the US forces in Iraq. Both the US and Iran appear to be continuing their collision course. If anything, both parties seem to view Covid-19 as an opportunity to force the other party to change policy or surrender. They seem to have a worrying determination to use the pandemic to reinforce old strategies and narratives.

One might ask why so much is written about Iran-US relations, when in fact the central, and to a lesser extent the eastern European countries, are the ones struggling to save the nuclear deal? And how, exactly, can such heated rhetoric between Washington and Tehran affect Europe or its transatlantic relationship? The current trajectory not only endangers Europe’s non-proliferation goals, but it also heightens the risk of a nuclear arms race and a further military escalation in Europe’s backyard. Direct or indirect confrontation between American- and Iranian-backed forces across the Middle East will further fuel the regional conflicts (2), particularly in Iraq and Syria, that have already taken a heavy toll on Europe. While European leaders do share many of the US’s concerns regarding Iran, some European officials privately say that isolating Iran and excluding it from the international community may lead to a new ascent for the Iranian hardliners, politicians who would not back down from taking action “that [will] further fuel regional instability”(3). A regional escalation could appeal to the Iranian leadership for several reasons: it could divert attention from the mounting economic troubles and popular dissatisfaction at home, and achieve the long-sought goal of pushing the US out of Iraq with perceived lower risks of backlash, given President Trump’s desire to contain China and the need to address internal problems caused by the pandemic. Some officials in the Trump administration apparently hope that the compounded effects of COVID-19 and US sanctions will bring Tehran to the negotiation table: “There may be a window in the spring and summer for a negotiated ceasefire that puts us into a holding pattern until the November [US presidential] elections. A combination of pressures on the Iranian leadership … would leave the regime needing relief for limited stability”. However, signals from Tehran indicate that Iran is not interested in negotiations from a position of weakness. 

Against this background the only safe assumption is that Tehran will not re-engage in any constructive dialogue with Washington before the US elections in November. Moreover, even this scenario will be influenced by the presidential elections in Iran in May 2021. Given the fact that the Iranian moderates are in freefall (as seen from the elections to the Majlis earlier this year) and Ayatollah Khamenei is preparing his successor, or his legacy, the next American administration will encounter a leadership in Tehran that is very much aggrieved, prideful, risk-averse and hyper-sensitive about appearing weak, domestically, in the Mid-East region, and on the global stage. But even so, given their economic situation, the sharp global decline in demand for oil and crude prices, and the severe pandemic, the Iranians might be convinced to come back to the negotiation table, to back down from violating the provisions of the JCPOA and return to its full compliance. This might be a very good window of opportunity for Europe, which, if it hits the right notes both privately and publicly, will have the chance to de-escalate tensions, to revitalise its diplomacy and to re-establish economic ties. The most important question that arises here – and possibly the only one – is whether Europe is indeed prepared for an open diplomatic confrontation with its natural ally regarding the Iranian issue. Escalation, de-escalation or status quo? this might be a motto for the near future, on this particular international dossier. This essay aims to present three possible scenarios that could describe the future of the US-Iran relationship and its implication for Europe. A return to the past – a hypothesis in which the aggressive dialogue would continue without a constructive finality; Iran’s emergence as regional hegemon; and a Western burst of action – where the European signatories of the JCPOA could decide whether to continue to support the nuclear deal or change the discourse, supporting Washington in its bid to negotiate a new deal.

The first scenario: return to the past

In May 2021, Hassan Rouhani’s term will come to an end, and it is widely believed that a hardliner will come into office, just as the parliamentary elections showed this past February. In short, 2020 has so far been a litany of disasters for the Iranian people. To compound their misery, crisis after crisis has given conservatives and Iran’s unelected institutions the perfect opportunity to sideline voices of dissent, paving a path forward for conservatives to take power in the 2021 presidential election, and control the succession of Iran’s next Supreme Leader. Therefore, the best approach would likely be a return to the JCPOA, on a ‘compliance for compliance’ basis, and build up from there. Rouhani will hand over power in August next year, so there is still a time window of one year to open talks with those moderate politicians who brought  Iran to the negotiations table in the first place. Ali Larijani, a former military officer in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps who served as the Speaker of the Parliament of Iran from 2008 to 2020, Saeed Jalili, a former secretary of the Supreme National Security Council from 2007 to 2013 and Iran’s nuclear negotiator, and Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, a former military officer who held office as the Mayor of Tehran from 2005 to 2017, are probably three of the potential conservative candidates who could become president of the Islamic Republic. Such a scenario could take us back in time to June 2005, when the hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, newly elected as president of the Islamic Republic, driven by a new form of Iranian nationalism fundamentally tied to the nuclear programme, caused the Iranian government to resume the enrichment process at the plant in Isfahan. At the time, the EU-3 (France, Germany and the United Kingdom, then still an EU member) reaffirmed its unilateral security guarantees and offered long-time cooperation, but Iranian policymakers rejected the proposal. Throughout 2006 and 2007, the EU negotiators were largely caught between Iran – which was not interested in a compromise, but rather felt emboldened regarding its rising clout in the Middle East – and the US, which saw the referral to the United Nations Security Council as the means to legitimise the containment of Iran (4). 

Engagement with Iran has had three distinct periods: the Critical Dialogue (1992-1997) and Comprehensive Dialogue (1998-2003, under presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami); the period from 2003 until 2005, when engagement was championed by the EU-3 and represented the effort to avoid another US-led war in the Middle East; and the period of coercive diplomacy (2005-2012). It was only during the period of coercive diplomacy that the US government participated – both passively and actively – in the P5+1 (US, UK, France, Russian Federation, China and Germany) framework. The Critical Dialogue pursued by the EU between 1992 and 1997 represented the Common Foreign and Security Policy in its infancy, and failed (5) to make any linkages between areas of concern and relations with the EU. 

In July 2012, former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told an audience in Iran that the government would not “retreat even one iota from their rights, principles and values against the declining materialistic powers. The enemy strikes at the Iranian nation step by step; but, in return, it receives a stronger, heavier blow”.

History looks set to repeat itself. The newly-elected conservative parliament will most likely bolster hardliners in the 2021 presidential contest and sway public policy debates away from engagement with the US.

History looks set to repeat itself. In 2004, when many reformist voters stayed at home amidst the internal repression of the reformist movement, a weakened reformist president, and also in disappointment at the aggressive speech coming from Washington – the famous collocation “axis of evil” coined by George W. Bush –conservatives were handed a sizable majority in parliament, easing the way into office for Mahmoud Ahamadinejad. The newly-elected conservative parliament will most likely bolster hardliners in the 2021 presidential contest and sway public policy debates away from engagement with the US. If the country’s economic issues and political stagnation continue, Iranians will feel justified in their abstention from the elections, solidifying the notion that the system no longer works for them.

The key problem for Europe in this perspective is perhaps not so much related to the re-emergence of a conservative political elite, but how it will use its power diplomatically, tactically and strategically. While the Iranian market has been reopened for European companies and investments after 2015, and EU trade with Iran reached a total of €21 billion in 2017, the most important companies that had started investing in Iran withdrew after the re-imposition of American sanctions.

Biggest European deals announced in 2017 (Source: The New York Times)

Apart from the economic aspect, a regional incident can always escalate into a more general conflict, just in Europe’s backyard. And in the present circumstances, when Europeans are fighting the next wave of the pandemic and the associated economic crisis, a spillover effect would be more than difficult to manage. The best option would be for EU officials and other European leaders to try to identify convergent interests with the US in the Middle East and do their best to focus on substance, rather than wasting time commenting on Trump’s tweets. They could also try to bring Iranian and American diplomats to the negotiation table before another crisis arises – and before the Russians or the Chinese do so first.

The second scenario: Iran’s emergence as regional hegemon

Ever since 1973 and the first oil shock, the centre of gravity of Middle Eastern politics has been gradually shifting from the eastern Mediterranean and the Arab-Israeli conflict toward the Persian Gulf, where Iran has long harboured ambitions to become a regional power, despite recent escalations in the Eastern Mediterranean. The process was accelerated in 1979 by the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, which dramatically reduced the likelihood of another Arab-Israeli war, and the peak of the Islamic Revolution, which replaced the government of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi with a radical theocratic regime under the leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In recent years, despite severe regime sanctions, Iran has managed a complex set of regional relations and a considerable measure of success. Just mentioning the connections and proxies Iran has in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen or even Afghanistan, it can be seen that Tehran can wield influence, according to its own needs, over about half of the Middle East region. Therefore, it is no surprise that the nuclear file has two components: a formal one – limiting, even stopping the proliferation process – and an informal one, for which the nuclear issue is the means of pursuing the goal of containing Iran’s regional emergence. Saudi Arabia and Israel – two of Washington’s most important allies in the region – are the main opponents of both Iran and the nuclear deal.

Iran’s regional policy has undergone changes due to a number of internal and external factors. The external factors have mainly followed regional trends and have often been triggered by external powers’ military interventions in the neighbouring countries and/or occupation of those countries. Through a combination of regional trends, often triggered by external powers’ strategies, and Tehran’s definition of national expediency, Iran has become one of the most significant and influential states in the region, and has tailored its foreign policy based on the sovereignty factor (as mentioned in Article 9 of the Iranian Constitution), the influence factor – seeking to maintain strong influence in post-occupation or newly-formed governments in neighbouring countries (such as Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan) – and the ‘balance of power’ factor – concentrating on both international and regional powers (Iran has put a great deal of effort into defying the US’s influence (6) in the region, and has shown a strong degree of aspiration to maintain its leading position as the region’s largest Shia majority country in order to cross-regionally offset the Saudi influence). (7)

The dynamics of the Iran-Syria alliance have become more evident since the crisis in Syria began; both countries have a higher chance of surviving, as well as achieving their long-term goals, through their strategic, military, and economic ties. The relations between the two countries have attracted more headlines since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, but they actually date back to the early stages of the inception of the revolutionary government in Tehran, when Syria was the first Arab country to recognise the provisional government after the Shah’s ouster. The mutually beneficial relations between the two countries have provided Iran with opportunities to use Syria as a guaranteed lifeline supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon, and as a safe channel (8) for shipping undisclosed commercial and military goods, something which became particularly important after the sanctions on Iran were tightened in 2011. 

Amid the backdrop of pandemic, sanctions and economic recession, the power of Iran’s conservative establishment has dramatically increased, setting the course for a new era of hardline politics.

Iran has pursued a multifaceted strategic alliance (9) with Syria, in line with the three main pillars of its foreign policy. In line with the sovereignty factor and with keeping Damascus close to Tehran, Iran has retained strategic grounds for retaliating to potential Israeli military aggression. Moreover, in keeping close to the Assad regime, Iran, unlike other regional and international players who have largely alienated Assad since the crisis, has maintained a great deal of influence in the Syrian government. Such influence does not necessarily mean that Iran’s green light would guarantee Assad’s exit, but broadly speaking, Iran is perhaps the only regional player that the Assad government trusts so far. Finally, since the beginning of the Syrian crisis Iran has been the only regional player willing to and capable of putting boots on the ground (10). This kind of strategy has maintained the ‘balance of power factor’, which is a key concern in Iran’s foreign policy.

Iran is not expected to cede its consolidation in Syria, despite its economic difficulties and the danger of extensive popular protests related to the coronavirus pandemic. Moreover, Iran has been assisting Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad in retaking Idlib province and encircling the Kurdish areas

Iraq, the former foe and current ally, is an important pillar of the Iranian foreign policy; since as far back as 2003, the influence factor has been translated into control of the post-Saddam Iraqi governments. From that time, Iran has supported, either directly or through proxies, the creation of a Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. Another major goal of Iranian foreign policy in Iraq is to win the competition with other players involved in the region. The military campaign against ISIS in Iraq has triggered a more pragmatic Iranian approach towards the West, somewhat similar to their tactical cooperation in defeating al-Qaeda and the Taliban after the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. Some European states, such as France, Germany, Italy and the UK, have joined the US-led anti-ISIS air coalition, while others have provided training and arms to Iraq’s central army and to Kurdish Peshmerga forces. In private, Western officials say that Iran has been the most willing and effective force (11) in coordinating ground troops with the coalition’s air campaign against ISIS. Europeans would have preferred a strong Iraqi security force that could act independently of Iran, but they recognise that no Iraqi or foreign actor has the appetite or ability to replace Iran (12). Moreover, maintaining influence in Iraqi politics has become more crucial to the Islamic Republic as Iraq’s large market provides an accommodating environment for Iran’s licit and illicit trade (13). Europe can tolerate, and to a degree even welcome Iran’s operations against ISIS, as long as they do not weaken Iraq’s central government or reignite sectarian divisions. In addition, Europe will want to see Iran taking a more active part in tackling the actual and perceived sectarian tensions associated with its role in Iraq. One way that might be acceptable to Iran would be for its high-ranking political, military, and religious figures to follow the example set by Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in condemning sectarian acts (14) and working with Baghdad to shape inclusive political representation for Sunnis and other minorities.

Even amidst the pandemic crisis, the ‘maximum pressure’ strategy imposed by Washington and the large number of victims caused by COVID-19, Tehran is continuing its strategic approach to Iraq. In April 2020, 11 Iranian naval vessels aggressively veered close to five American military vessels transiting the Persian Gulf. This clearly shows that the regime in Tehran has no intention of surrendering, and is carefully planning and executing a strategy based on calculated and calibrated actions.

The Hezbollah model was the most effective way to spread the ideology of the Islamic Revolution, and Lebanon was the right environment to implement this strategy. Iran’s financing of Hezbollah’s military and social services enables the group to solidify its role as the protector and provider of Lebanon’s Shia community. This core constituencyprovides the base for Hezbollah and Iran to fight for dominance throughout the Middle East. With Iranian support, Hezbollah has emerged as the most powerful military and political force in Lebanon. 

Iran’s ambitions in Afghanistan are not necessarily hegemonic. Tehran knows that it cannot dominate its neighbour completely, yet it has certain interests to protect, such as securing its eastern border, preserving the flow of water from Afghanistan, countering drugs trafficking and dealing with the large Afghan refugee population on its soil. Also, Iran is particularly anxious to prevent a total Taliban victory in Afghanistan and the expansion of Pakistani power. The Iranian government has attempted to achieve its objectives through a variety of means, such as cultural and religious bounds, economic tools and even supporting various militias and armed groups (15). Iran’s activities in Afghanistan have not drawn the same attention as its operations in the rest of the region, but it still remains an important and often difficult arena of Iranian foreign policy – meaning, above all, to see stability in Afghanistan.

Furthermore, Iran recently sent five oil tankers to Venezuela, violating that country’s embargo, and thus crossing the regional border of its desire for influence. In doing so, Iran escalated its activities in the western hemisphere, even if it is not the first time Tehran has meddled in South American affairs: relations between Tehran and Caracas go back as far as the 1960s, when both countries were founding members of OPEC; Iran’s proxy Hezbollah has also been sending mercenaries to the tri-border region of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. 

Amid the backdrop of pandemic, sanctions and economic recession, the power of Iran’s conservative establishment has dramatically increased, setting the course for a new era of hardline politics. Conservatives politicians and critics – the very people whom campaigned against Rouhani’s administration and his platform of external engagement and internal moderation – are more likely to continue, or in some cases to resume, the policy of regional influence from where they left off. In this scenario, Europe needs to institute a paradigm shift in its relations with Iran.The European Union needs to move from a country-specific policy focused on non-proliferation toward a Gulf strategy that accounts for the Islamic Republic’s ties with its littoral neighbours. As it happens, the promotion of intraregional cooperation is part of the EU’s history and continuing success – despite current shortcomings in handling migration, stabilising national debts and fighting the coronavirus pandemic.

In institutional terms, the timing on the EU side is good now. The European Commission that took office in December 2019 aims to be “more strategic, more assertive and more united” in its foreign policy, in the words of its president, Ursula von der Leyen. After the US-Iranian escalation in Iraq in January 2020, the EU’s Council of Ministersmandated the union’s foreign policy chief to talk to all parties to help de-escalate tensions in the region, support political dialogue, and promote a political regional solution. Europe can now move beyond its exclusive nuclear focus with Iran, and shift to a relationship based on engagement, not containment. This would allow the EU to pursue its interests with Iran across a range of issues, in particular on de-escalating those conflicts in the Middle East in which Iran is involved. Despite the regional disorder, Iran is one of the few countries in the region that has a fully functioning state, security, and intelligence apparatus. Relations with Iran matter to Europe, in particular because of Iran’s deep footprint in almost every crisis that is currently unfolding in this region of strategic importance. Europeans have to deal with the repercussions of the Iraqi state’s disintegration after the US-led invasion in 2003, their incorrect calculations on how quickly Bashar al-Assad would fall in Syria, and the rising extremism across the region. The surge of ISIS has further underscored the volatile nature of the threats to Europe from internal radicalisation and the backlash in the form of Islamophobia, the potential return to Europe of citizens now fighting in Syria, terrorism, and the human cost of the regional crises.

Although focusing on either Iran as a country or the nuclear deal as an issue is too narrow an approach in and of itself, the JCPOA should still be the EU’s point of departure. Even if Iran’s successive steps to reduce its commitments endanger what is left of nuclear cooperation under the deal, the coronavirus pandemic provides an additional reason to open a humanitarian channel that allows for regular trade in medical products and food staples with Iran, and from there to build a way to the negotiations table.

The third scenario: a Western burst of action

It is almost certain that in a year from now, Iran’s foreign policy will take on a new dimension, and the issue of the nuclear agreement will be more likely one of the main points on the next Iranian government agenda. Yet this scenario involves two ramifications, conditional upon the US presidential elections in November 2020, and those in Iran in May 2021. Whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden wins, the next American president will have about seven months to deal with the ongoing administration regarding the future of the nuclear deal and, in consequence, with Iran’s ambition in the region. Hassan Rouhani will end his second term, and he will hand over office to the next administration in August 2021, so there is a window of opportunity to negotiate with the moderates who brought Iran to the negotiations table in the first place. 

If Trump is re-elected it is more likely that the ‘maximum pressure’ strategy will continue. However, there is a chance to open up to an overture from Tehran, given the fact that the country’s economic and health conditions are such a precarious state. So, in order to avoid further mass uprisings, whose effects could be more profound than the previous ones, the current moderate regime in Tehran could take at least a minimal reconciliation with Washington into account. In spite of his aggressive rhetoric, some analysts have argued that President Trump’s reluctance to launch a military strike against Iran is proof of his prudence and restraint. Starting a war with Iran might lead to bloody retaliations against US’s regional allies; moreover, it would require a new military involvement in the Middle East, in addition to those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Such a scenario would be inconsistent with the Trump campaign’s slogan of ‘America First’. The fact that President Rouhani has just listed a set of conditions under which Iran would resume dialogue with the United States – even if Mike Pompeo has dismissed them – could send a message to the US administration that Iran is not completely closed to negotiations. However, it is equally clear that Washington will have to make certain concessions, otherwise any such zero-sum game will be completely rejected by Tehran.

Biden’s election to the White House presents fewer and more accessible variables than the previous scenario regarding Iran. Even though the remarks made by Antony Blinken, a former Deputy Secretary of State with the Obama administration – “Iran would have to come back into full compliance and unless and until it did, obviously, all sanctions would remain in place” – sparked a backlash in Iran, and Fars News, a conservative outlet affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, seized on Blinken’s remarks to say that Biden’s approach to Iran will not differ drastically from that of the Trump administration, it is more likely that the Democratic Party’s candidate will try to save some parts of Barack Obama’s legacy, including the JCPOA.

Regardless of who the new US president is as of January 2021, one thing is certain: Europeans will have to make a decision on Iran, either trying to save the nuclear deal or rallying behind Washington if the new administration decides otherwise.

Regardless of who the new US president is as of January 2021, one thing is certain: Europeans will have to make a decision on Iran, either trying to save the nuclear deal or rallying behind Washington if the new administration decides otherwise. “Europeans view the nuclear deal as a significant foreign policy achievement”, analyst Kelsey Davenport has said; yet at the same time, the EU could come to rethink their stance if Iran continues to test the limits imposed by the JCPOA. However, at least for now, the EU (together with the United Kingdom, China and the Russian Federation) seems willing to do its best to save the deal, to continue to use INSTEX – the EU-Iran trading mechanism designed to allow Europeans to bypass US sanctions and continue trade with Tehran – which just has concluded its first transaction (facilitating the export of medical goods), and to cooperate with Tehran on several issues affecting the Middle East. France and Germany, signatories of the JCPOA, could force the pace of the EU’s involvement in the Iranian issue, especially as the Europeans begin to lose visibility on an international stage which is now occupied, and will probably remain so in the near future, by the new type of cold confrontation between US and China. The rest of the Central and Eastern European member states will most likely follow the approach of Paris and Berlin; the only visible exception could be Poland, whose opinion in the aftermath after the US unilateral withdrawal from JCPOA in May 2018 was that the “EU needs more empathy toward the US over the Iran deal”. But this stance did not come as a surprise, as Warsaw is keen for security assurances from the US as a deterrence policy against Russia. Nevertheless, the Polish minister of foreign affairs, Jacek Krzysztof Czaputowicz, implied that Poland had not yet made a final decision: “We need to think, there is still time. This doesn’t mean we don’t feel part of the EU community in these discussions … We will see what other EU members think”. On the other hand, some US observers believe that, when faced with a choice of doing business with Iran or facing economic secondary sanctions, European governments will opt to preserve their ties with the US. They also tend to believe that, by threatening to adopt a confrontational position toward Iran – dismantling the nuclear deal, pushing for regime change, or even conducting limited military strikes against Iran – the US will coerce (16) Europeans to jump onboard with less extreme policies, such as the renegotiation of the JCPOA or demanding that Iran change its behaviour on regional issues. In opposing the current administration in Washington policy toward Iran, European governments – especially Paris and Berlin – find themselves in the unusual position of being closer to Russia and China than to their traditional transatlantic partner (17). Even if the EU’s leaders do share many of the concerns of the US with regard to Iran, they have consistently voiced unanimous support for the JCPOA, and have broadly favoured similar multilateral engagements to address outstanding issues regarding the Islamic Republic. 

Conclusions

The COVID-19 crisis comes at a particularly difficult political moment for the Iranian government. In November 2019, its decision to abruptly raise fuel prices triggered widespread protests, the latest and most significant bout of unrest due to economic discontent and political stagnation. Security forces brutally suppressed the uprising, killing hundreds and imprisoning thousands. In January, Iran downed a Ukrainian civilian airliner, having purportedly confused it for an incoming US missile at a time of heightened bilateral tensions following the US killing of General Qassem Soleimani. All these events have eroded public confidence in the current government in Tehran, and with the 2021 presidential elections looming, hardliners are seizing the opportunity to promise a more effective leadership. But given the history of ultra-conservative governments, the likelihood of negotiations with Iran will be much lower, even for Europe, which has managed, at least for now, to keep the door open to diplomacy with Tehran. 

While the ‘maximum pressure’ strategy has not tempered Iran’s policies in the region, the Europeans should attempt to de-escalate the situation. Even if the ‘New Europe’ – namely Central and Eastern European countries – tends to support US foreign policy on most Middle East issues, the Iranian question seems to be its Achilles heel, as all European states, including the CEE, could feel the effect of a possible escalation of events in the Middle East region.       

The first two scenarios described above would set back the confidence and rapprochement already built between EU and Iran by at least a decade. European countries should now prepare to minimise the damage and preserve their strategic interests on non-proliferation, pursue stability in the Middle East, and keep an eye on the on economic and energy strategy. The question arises: Does the EU want to be a global power or not? However, the reality on the ground is that Europe does not have the tools – or possibly even the will – to project its power. Europe’s financial resources cannot match those of the US, and more fundamentally, deep divisions remain within Europe over whether it should even seek power, with or without the UK. Yet, the Iranian issue is far greater than Iran – in reality it epitomises a structural turning point in the transatlantic relationship. 

Nevertheless, as cynical it might sound, the ongoing pandemic crisis could be an opportunity for Europe. While the US has to manage a set of internal crises – pandemic, rising unemployment, and possibly further riots across the country – the EU can step up, and as a starter, protect its important humanitarian connection with Iran. Given that the country continues to be the epicentre of the pandemic in a fragile Middle East, the coronavirus is likely to lead to increased refugee flows to Europe. Building from here, the EU should form a coalition on non-nuclear issues, focused on freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf, and the conflicts in Yemen and Iraq (18). Also, the European governments will need to push back against the US-led sanction regime so that their companies will not be penalised by the US for undertaking legal business with Iran. Should Europe (and the US fail) to provide relief to Iran in such grave circumstances, this would turn the Iranian public against them for generations. Moreover, it would give ammunition to those in Iran who favour confrontation with the West. To devise smart contingency plans, it will be imperative for European governments to increase their coordination with China, Russia, and the other Asian economic giants such as India, South Korea and Japan (19). Not only do their interests align with respect to the JCPOA, they also share a more general concern about the use of secondary US sanctions.

Europeans see the nuclear deal as a key pillar of regional and world security, and have struggled to keep the agreement alive, despite US pressure. It might be the time now for a more assertive approach, one that will add to Europe’s credibility and strengthen its position. It will increase the likelihood that Iran will take steps to return to full compliance with its nuclear commitments, because Tehran’s endgame is to restart oil exports, to enter the international finance system, and to overcome the pandemic crisis.

At the same time, a principled stance by Europe would pay off regardless of the outcome of the US presidential elections. If Joe Biden wins the election, Europeans will have kept the door open for a US return to the nuclear deal. If, however, Trump is re-elected, Europe will have taken a long overdue step towards protecting itself from further coercive action.

NOTES

(1). Mir. H. Sadat, James P. Hughes (2006), ‘US-Iran Engagement Through Afghanistan’, Middle East Policy, 17(1).
(2). Ellie Geranmayeh (2017), ‘The Coming Clash: Why Iran will Divide Europe from the United States’, ECFR, October 2017.
(3). Ibid.
(4). Bernd Kaussler (2014) Iran’s Nuclear Diplomacy. Power politics and conflict resolution, New York: Routledge, pp. 36-37.
(5). Bernd Kaussler (2014), op. cit., p. 94.
(6). Sara Bazoobandi (2014), ‘Iran’s Regional Policy: Interests, Challenges and Ambitions’, ISPI, Analysis no. 275, November 2014.
(7). Ibid.
(8). Ibid.
(9). Sara Bazoobandi (2014), op. cit., pp. 4-5.
(10). Ibid.
(11).Ellie Geranmayeh (2017), op. cit., p. 4.
(12). Ibid.
(13). Sara Bazoobandi (2014), op. cit., p. 6.
(14). Ellie Geranmayeh (2017), op. cit., pp. 5-6.
(15). Alireza Nader et. al. (2014), ‘Iran’s Influence in Afghanistan. Implications for the U. S. Drawdown’, RAND, pp. 1-74.
(16). Ellie Geranmayeh (2017), op. cit., p. 4.
(17). Ibid.
(18). Ellie Geranmayeh (2017), op. cit., p. 1.
(19). Ibid.

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