The European Union has officially called for an independent investigation into the killing of Saudi born journalist Jamal Khashoggi while Germany’s Foreign Minister has stated that his nation and its European partners should consider ceasing weapons sales to Riyadh. But while this move is being sold to the public as one of solidarity with supporters of the slain Khashoggi, there is a far more strategic purpose for the EU growing cold on Saudi Arabia in such a public manner.
In a matter of weeks, America’s new “mega-sanctions” against Iran will take full effect. The European Union has vocally vowed to shelter its companies from US sanctions which have already been threatened by the Trump White House should such companies continue their business dealings with Iran. That being said, even if existing European corporations were to set up shell companies to cover their Iranian business, the US could easily follow the trail and still sanction the business entity related to the shell company in question. Furthermore, as Washington has threatened to sanction entire European nations should they continue to conduct business with Iran, no one in Europe should automatically assume that Trump is bluffing just because past US Presidents would have never taken such action against America’s nominal European allies.
Because of this, it was becoming increasingly likely that much of Europe’s business with Iran would come to a halt as few European companies or states want to risk losing extremely lucrative business with the United States over even the best of deals with Iran. Within this context therefore, the Khashoggi murder takes on a new relevance as now multiple European businessmen have decided to boycott a forthcoming economic conference in Saudi Arabia. Beyond this, unlike in the United States where Iran is viewed as a kind of national monstrosity, European businesses, governments and ordinary citizens don’t have a particularly negative view on Iran. In fact most Europeans have an either neutral or positive view of Iran, mostly based on a general admiration for the millennia of rich Iranian culture.
Because of this, selling European investors on Iran at a time when many Europeans are feeling repulsed by the mere thought of travelling to Saudi Arabia is ultimately an easy sell. A more difficult sell however is what the EU has in mind in respect of publicly cracking down on Riyadh over the Khashoggi murder.
Donald Trump is already under pressure at home over the fact that he has essentially walked on eggshells in respect of his rhetoric against Saudi Arabia. While the Democratic party merely favours Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s siblings and while Democrats don’t particularly care for Iran (irrespective of what they say about the Obama era JCPOA), this certainly will not stop them from trying to score points during an election season against the clearly pro-Mohammad bin Salman White House.
Now the Europeans are joining the American opposition in piling on the pressure on Trump. But while the Democratic party in the US is merely trying to use Khashoggi’s murder to win an election, the Europeans are trying to win a concession from Trump regarding sanctions. The envisaged deal would sound something like this: “We Europeans will cease criticising the US by inference in our discussions on Saudi Arabia if Washington drops the threat of sanctions against EU states and companies that continue to transact with Iran. Alternatively, if the US threatens or implements sanctions on Europe, we Europeans will publicly criticise the US administration for its close ties with the ruling faction in Saudi Arabia”.
Trump’s forthcoming rhetoric on recent events in the Middle East may give some indication as to whether he’ll adopt a more relaxed approach towards Europe regarding Iran. That being said, while Trump is under pressure to condemn the Saudis in stronger terms, it is not likely that his anti-Iranian stance will moderate and it is equally assured that his outspoken personal disdain for the European Union will not change.
In this sense, while the EU is taking a gamble on Trump, it is a gamble that one way or another they cannot lose. At the very worst the status quo of the US threatening Europe over business with Iran will continue and in what the Europeans would consider an ideal situation, Trump will let Europe continue its business with Iran in return for the EU not piling pressure on the US in respect of Saudi Arabia.