European Policy Toward Iran-Israel Regional Military Escalation


Brussels is trying to avoid a military escalation after the expected Israeli retaliation to the Iranian attack against Israeli territory. According to the European Union (EU) foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, the Middle East is “on the edge of the cliff, and we have to move away from it.” Borrell said he expected a response from Israel to the unprecedented aerial attack by Iran but hoped it would not spark further escalation. According to the European view, the EU needed to have the best possible relations with Iran despite the sanctions the bloc has imposed on the Iranian republic over its disputed nuclear energy program and other issues. European countries are trying to pressure Israel to take a decision in favor of a measured military response to the Iranian military attack against its territory.

Among European states, Europe’s premier military powers, the UK and France, are joining forces to call on Israel to show restraint. According to UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, “Iran sought to plunge the Middle East into a new crisis.” He noted that “if it had succeeded, the fallout for regional security and the toll on Israeli citizens would have been catastrophic. But it did not succeed. In support of Israel’s own defensive action, the UK joined a US-led international effort, along with France and partners in the region, which intercepted almost all of the missiles, saving lives in Israel and its neighbors.” This British view is supported by the French analysis of the risk of a regional military escalation. According to French President Emmanuel Macron, Israel should try to isolate Iran, rather than retaliate. He said on French television that “we are all worried about a possible escalation.” “We will do all we can to avoid things flaring up, escalating.”

France is more particularly preoccupied with the economic risk in case of a persistent rise in military tensions in the Middle East. A new rise in oil prices and the disruption of economic routes in case of a more active campaign of the Houthis against commercial ships could provoke a new peak in inflation for European consumers. Nevertheless, Europe’s proactive defense of Israeli territory against Iranian drones and missiles sparks a controversy regarding an alleged European standard. There is indeed an apparent contradiction between defending Israeli territory but not Ukraine. This Ukrainian discourse has some shortcomings from a military point of view: it is indeed easier, given the geographical distance between Iran and Israel, to protect Israel rather than Ukraine, a neighbor of Russia.

Moreover, EU leaders are more influential with regard to Ukraine, a European country, rather than in Gaza where the United States is the main external actor. Therefore, it is highly probable that Europe will face challenges in implementing its de-escalation strategy. Despite these limits, the 27 leaders of the EU will seek to persuade Israel not to trigger a full-blown Middle Eastern war by attacking Iran, will make a plea to avoid a greater conflagration in Lebanon, and some European countries will push for yet more sanctions on Iran. According to a draft of the European Council conclusions, they will call for “all parties to exercise utmost restraint and refrain from any action that may increase tensions in the region.”

Several European countries have also taken security measures to avoid having their citizens targeted inside Iran. For instance, France, Germany and the Netherlands’ embassy in Tehran have urged their respective citizens to leave Iran amid growing risk of military escalation in the Middle East. Moreover, European airlines such as Lufthansa had suspended flights from Europe to Iran in fear of a military escalation that could increase the risk of a military miscalculation, affecting airline safety.

There is indeed a risk of a broader degradation of ties not only between Iran and Israel but between Iran and the West. This rise of tensions had a diplomatic effect on the bilateral relationship between France and Iran with the Iranian ambassador to France being summoned to the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Ambassador Mohammad Amin-Nejad was reminded on Monday “in the strongest terms” of the French condemnation of the attack perpetrated by Iran on the night of Saturday to Sunday, the Quai d’Orsay said in a statement. Several European countries, including Germany, the Czech Republic and Belgium, also summoned the Iranian ambassador to their soil on Monday to express their condemnation of the unprecedented attack this weekend.

This new deterioration of relations between Europe and Iran will prepare for a new widening of sanctions against Iran, particularly against its supplies of weaponry – including drones – to Russia and proxy groups around the Middle East. Overall, European diplomatic efforts cannot have a significant impact on either the Iranian or Israeli decision-making process. Ultimately, there is a lack of European leverage on both parties to the conflict that limits the European capability to shape the future of military dynamics between Iran and Israel.

Editorial Team