Beyond the Saudi-Iranian tensions. Speech at the European Parliament

Thank you Madame Chair,

Before I get into the details of today’s topic, let me spend just a few words on what happened in Vienna over the weekend. We showed that, exactly six months after the agreement we reached, Iran has kept its commitments with the international community. Let me remind you that six months ago, the sceptics were still telling us that Iran would not comply with its obligations. Obviously, this was an agreement against nuclear proliferation. But there is another element of satisfaction: we have showed that multilateralism and diplomacy can work, and they deliver. There are two other elements of hope: the opportunities for relation of Iran with the rest of the world; and the fact that this agreement could open the way to different relations in the region. We need to invest in the possibility of different relations in the region.

We cannot be naïve and believe this will happen overnight. We will face obstacles, and setbacks. The willingness of Iran to further cooperate on regional matters will have to be tested. Six months ago we said: their will to implement the deal will have to be tested. So (Implementation day) is an encouraging development on this too. Think back to just one year ago: many believed we would never manage to agree on a strong deal with Teheran. We proved them wrong. And if we keep working hard and together, I am sure we will keep surprising the sceptics.

Dialogue among all regional powers – starting with Saudi Arabia and Iran – is the only way out of the current turmoil in the Middle East. In the past few years a struggle for regional hegemony has mixed with revamped ethnic and confessional tensions. Terrorist groups such as Da’esh are fostering sectarianism to throw the region into chaos and bolster their own power.

International disputes between Saudi Arabia and Iran can easily play into the narrative of a war of religion between Sunni and Shia Muslims – we know this very well. The risks are huge. New frictions can block the difficult path towards peace in Syria, but also in Yemen. They can destabilize Iraq and Lebanon, the two countries in the region the most exposed to sectarian tensions. They can destabilise Muslim communities worldwide, from Asia to Africa.

This is why we are trying to contain and de-escalate the tensions, together with the international community. Let me just mention my contacts with the foreign minister of Indonesia, just days before she travelled to Saudi Arabia and Iran. This is a situation that concerns at least three continents.

The European Union reacted immediately, on January 2nd, to the execution by the Saudi authorities of Shi’a cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and 46 other individuals, most of whom had been convicted on terrorism charges in relations to their links to Al Qaeda. As expressed in my statement issued the same day, the EU can only deplore such mass executions: the death penalty can in no way be a sustainable or efficient response to crime or terrorism.

The EU opposes capital punishment under any circumstances. We shall continue to consistently advocate for the universal abolition of this cruel and degrading punishment in all circumstances.

The specific case of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr raises serious concerns regarding freedom of expression and the respect of basic civil and political rights; these should be safeguarded in all cases, also – let me stress this – in the framework of the fight against terrorism.

We have taken an immediate position also on the events in Iran: nothing can justify the attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran (and its consulate in Mashhad). In my contacts with both the Iranian and Saudi Foreign Ministers, I stressed the need for Iran to abide by its international obligations: this also means to ensure the protection of diplomatic premises in all circumstances.

In my phone calls with both sides, and in my meeting with Minister Zarif over the weekend, the main message I passed was to try and menage this bilateral tension to avoid spill-overs, and to preserve our efforts for peace in Syria and Yemen, nor they should destabilise vulnerable countries such as Iraq and Lebanon. I found reassurances on both sides.

For the same reason, I also discussed the situation with the UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, with the Secretary General of the Arab League, with ministers of Arab, African and Asian countries.

Finding a negotiated solution to the current conflicts in the Middle East is in everyone’s interest, especially in the region. Protracted war can only benefit terrorists of all kinds. It can only let instability spread further, well beyond the borders of the Middle East. This is not a zero sum game – this is the other strong message we are passing to our Iranian and Saudi friends: if the wars in Syria and Yemen do not stop as soon as possible, no nation will benefit from that. The only alternative to a win-win solution – where everyone sees its interests recognized – is chaos.

It took us months to gather all regional powers around the same table, to discuss peace in Syria – as well as for Libya, where we had encouraging news today. We cannot afford to waste any of these positive trends. The European Union will keep doing all it can to promote dialogue and fight sectarianism. We have learnt our own EU lesson: only regional cooperation brings peace and prosperity, we have experienced that for 60 years now. That is the only way to overcome centuries of conflicts. This is our way, and this is even more true for an area of the world such as the Middle East.