Diplomatic Quandry EU Stumped on How to Deal with Iran

As the clampdown in Iran continues, the European Union is debating how it can best respond to the war of words Tehran is waging against it: Should it impose new sanctions, restrict visas or even pull out all its 27 ambassadors? But the measures could mainly damage the Iranian opposition.

By Ulrike Putz in Beirut

As the war of words between Iran and the West escalates, the European Union is struggling to come up with a way to respond to Tehran's verbal attacks.

In a particularly fierce broadside Wednesday, Iranian General Hassan Firouzabadi, who is the country's chief of staff, left no doubts about who Iran's enemies in the West were. In remarks quoted by the semi-official news agency Fars, he singled out Britain, France and Germany, saying they were hostile to Iran and had offended the Islamic nation. Firouzabadi accused the countries of "interference" in Iran's post-election unrest.

Iranian students burn US and British flags during a protest outside the British Embassy in Tehran on June 23.

Iranian students burn US and British flags during a protest outside the British Embassy in Tehran on June 23.

The EU trio had doubted the results of the presidential election, showed sympathy with the demonstrators and refused to recognize the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president, he said, adding that the Iranian Foreign Ministry was reviewing its diplomatic relations with Berlin, Paris and London as a result. He also said that the EU had "lost the competence and qualifications needed" for holding talks with Iran over its nuclear program.

The general's strong words marked a new high point in the war of words which the Tehran regime has been waging against the West. The attacks have triggered a flurry of activity among European diplomats, who are looking for a course of action which would put Iran in its place without provoking a diplomatic scandal.

According to media reports, the EU is now discussing the possibility of withdrawing all its 27 ambassadors from Tehran. Senior officials from member states were planning to discuss the issue at a meeting in Stockholm Thursday.

"We have to show solidarity and present a united front in the EU," said Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, whose country took over the EU's six-month rotating presidency on Wednesday. However one EU diplomat who preferred not to be named told the news agency Reuters that some countries, including Germany and Italy, were skeptical as to whether pulling out the ambassadors would make sense.

In a speech to the German parliament Thursday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she wanted next week's G-8 summit to send a "strong message of unity" to Iran but argued that nuclear talks with Iran must continue. "We cannot drop the issue of a nuclear-armed Iran just because of the current situation," she said.

The chancellor said that Iran's leadership "must know that if they choose a path of reason, then we want Iran to develop prosperously." But if this that does not happen, the German leader said, "we will not shy away from stating our opinions and showing solidarity with those, including members of the British Embassy, that have been put under pressure."

Tricky Decisions

EU ambassadors in Tehran discussed a range of possible punitive measures at a meeting earlier this week. However none of them appears workable so far, according to sources in Tehran diplomatic circles. The meeting broke up without any decision being made. The diplomats plan to meet again in the coming days to re-visit the issue.

One of the possible steps that the EU states are considering is to restrict -- or even stop completely -- the issuing of visas to Iranians. However such a move would probably punish the wrong people -- many members of the Iranian opposition are currently trying to leave the country in a bid to avoid arrest.

Withdrawing Western embassy staff also appears to be a poor means of exerting pressure on the regime: Iran could refuse to let the diplomats re-enter the country once the current crisis is over, which would make a mockery of the West's approach. Moreover, diplomats are faced with the tricky question of under which criteria they would allow staff to return: Should they demand a genuine investigation into the election results? Or should they just insist on the release of the last British Embassy staff member who is still in Iranian custody?

Meanwhile, Fars on Wednesday raised new allegations against British Embassy employees, without, however, naming any sources. According to the news agency, one of the embassy staff played "a significant role" in organizing the unrest following the disputed re-election of Ahmadinejad in mid-June. On Sunday, nine Iranian employees of the British Embassy were arrested. Fars also claimed that one of the embassy employees was among the chief inciters of the riots. She was only released, the agency claimed, because she enjoys diplomatic immunity.

"Velvet Coup"

Mir Hossein Mousavi, figurehead of the reformers, has once again called for the election to be annulled, on the grounds that it is illegitimate. In addition Mohammed Khatami, the former president of Iran, has criticized the election process and demanded the release of imprisoned protesters. This means yet another influential former politician has aligned himself with the opponents of the election. Khatami also turned against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and spoke out against what he called a "velvet coup" against the people of Iran in a strongly worded statement posted on his Web site.

The West is debating the extent to which it can sanction Iran without weakening the reform camp. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband fears that the country's moderate forces will be undermined if the EU pursues a course of direct confrontation. Miliband told the British parliament on Tuesday that his Iranian counterpart Manouchehr Mottaki had shown himself to be willing to talk on the issue of the arrest of the embassy employees. "It's not the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tehran who goes around arresting people," he said, adding that Mottaki agreed that a solution needed to be found quickly. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hassan Qashqavi also recently stressed that his country did not want to pursue diplomatic confrontations.

However the remarks by the Iranian Foreign Ministry officials stand in stark contrast to the stance the chief of staff, Hassan Firouzabadi, took on Wednesday -- providing further evidence of a deep rift in the Iranian government. While the hardliners rattle sabers, the more pragmatic top-level politicians appear to be attempting a damage-limitation exercise.

Economic considerations also play a part: Europe is Iran's most important economic partner, meaning that the Islamic republic can't afford to have a serious crisis with the EU. The Iranian economy has suffered badly from the falling oil price. In addition, the rate of inflation has now risen to 23 percent, according to Iran's central bank.

On Sunday the Iranian government was forced to announce an end to subsidies for gasoline. It was an extremely unpopular decision which suggests that the national finances are in a bad way. Hence the threat of harsher economic sanctions is one of the few instruments that Europe can use to put pressure on Iran -- as it is currently doing. Should Iran not take up the West's offer for negotiations on the nuclear program by the end of the year, the EU would have to "go further," Miliband said Tuesday.

Meanwhile Iran's Basij militia has called on the judiciary to prosecute Mousavi. According to a Fars report Wednesday, the militias accuse Mousavi of committing nine offenses in connection to the protests, including "undermining national security." If he is convicted of that crime, the former presidential candidate could face up to 10 years in prison.


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