INSIGHT-Europe's patience with Iran wears thin, tiptoes towards Trump
(Repeats Friday story with no changes)
* Smaller EU states taking a much tougher stance on Tehran
* EU moving closer to aggressive U.S. policy to isolate Iran
* Warsaw conference with U.S. seen as risky
By Robin Emmott and John Irish
BRUSSELS/PARIS, Jan 18 (Reuters) - In Tehran on Jan. 8
during a meeting with European envoys, Iranian officials
abruptly stood up, walked out and slammed the door in an
extraordinary break with protocol.
The French, British, German, Danish, Dutch, and Belgian
diplomats in the Iranian foreign ministry room had incensed the
officials with a message that Europe could no longer tolerate
ballistic missile tests in Iran and assassination plots on
European soil, according to four EU diplomats.
"There was a lot of drama, they didn't like it, but we felt
we had to convey our serious concerns," one of the diplomats
said. "It shows the relationship is becoming more tense," a
An Iranian official declined to comment on the meeting.
The next day, the European Union imposed its first sanctions
on Iran since world powers agreed the 2015 Vienna nuclear arms
control deal with Tehran.
The sanctions were largely symbolic but the stormy meeting
encapsulated the unexpected shift in European diplomacy since
the end of last year. Smaller, more dovish EU countries have
joined France and Britain in a harder stance on Tehran,
including considering new economic sanctions, diplomats say.
Those could include asset freezes and travel bans on Iran’s
Revolutionary Guards and Iranians developing the Islamic
Republic's ballistic missile programme, three diplomats said.
The new approach moves Europe closer to U.S. President
Donald Trump's policy of isolating Iran with tough sanctions
even though European governments still support the 2015 Vienna
deal from which he withdrew in May.
Although there are diverging views in Europe, the shift
could have consequences for President Hassan Rouhani's
government as it looks to European capitals to salvage that
It could also strengthen anti-Western sentiment in Iran and
lead to more aggressive Iranian moves around the Middle East,
where the Islamic Republic is involved in proxy wars with its
main regional rival Saudi Arabia.
Iran's firing of short-range ballistic missiles into Syria
on Sept. 30, missile tests and a satellite launch this month
have niggled Western powers.
For Europe, alleged assassination plots by Iran on French
and Danish soil in 2018 were the last straw, diplomats say.
Tehran denies the plots and says the missile tests are
"The accusations against Iran over the past few months have
awoken a few countries in Europe that were against a tougher
line on Iran," a European-based Middle East diplomat said.
The same day as the meeting, the Netherlands publicly blamed
Iran for killings on its soil in 2015 and 2017. Tehran denies
any involvement. Then on Jan. 9, the EU designated a unit of
Iran's intelligence ministry a terrorist organisation, froze its
assets and those of two men.
"Take the Dutch for example. They had kept very quiet until
the Danish attack and now they are more hawkish than the
French," said the diplomat.
Alarmed by Trump's "America First" policy, Europe considered
his May 8 decision to pull out of the Iran accord a severe
setback but Iran's international ambitions appear to offer
Brussels and Washington a chance to work more closely.
A U.S. State Department official said there was now
"a growing international consensus" on the range of Iranian
"The U.S. welcomes Europe's efforts to counter Iranian
terrorism on European soil, its missile launches, human rights
abuses, and other threats," the official said.
As the Trump administration accused Iran last year of
harbouring nuclear ambitions and fomenting instability in the
Middle East through its support for militant groups in Syria,
Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen, the EU sought dialogue with Tehran.
At meetings between European and Iranian diplomats last
year, Britain, France, Germany and Italy, pressed for gestures
on Iran's role in Syria's war and for help to end the conflict
But multiple bilateral talks on the ballistic missile
programme have yielded no results.
The EU tried to show Iran that compliance with the nuclear
accord would still mean economic benefits despite Trump's
decision to reimpose U.S. sanctions and choke off Iranian oil
exports by pressuring U.S. allies.
The European Union is set to officially launch a mechanism,
the special purpose vehicle (SPV) to trade with Iran later this
month but it will not be operational for several months. It will
be registered in France, run by a German and likely to include
Britain as a shareholder.
"There's a feeling of frustration among Britain, France and
Germany, and others, after the first phase of diplomacy with
Iran," another senior EU diplomat said. "We thought we could get
some effort from the Iranians in several areas."
Iran says Europe may not be able to safeguard the nuclear
deal anyway and accused European officials of dragging their
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister and senior nuclear
negotiator Abbas Araqchi said last week "operational steps" were
needed from Europe as political support not enough.
Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, head of Iran's powerful Assembly of
Experts said on Thursday Europe "would do nothing in our
"The Europeans are worse than the Americans. If not, they
are not any better," he said, state TV reported.
Last March, as part of efforts to convince Trump to stick to
the nuclear deal, France, Britain and Germany proposed asset
freezes and travel bans on the IRGC and Iranian companies and
groups developing the missile programme, according to a document
seen by Reuters.
Now, a similar set of measures is being prepared, three
"We'd prefer not to take these measures, but they need to
stop trying to kill people on our territory and over the last
three years they have beefed up their ballistic programme," said
one senior European diplomat.
The diplomats say getting all 28 EU members to agree will
The EU's top diplomat Federica Mogherini, who helped seal
the 2015 deal, is wary of moving too fast for fear of provoking
a complete collapse of the accord, four diplomats said.
EU foreign ministers planned to issue a rare joint statement
on Jan. 21 about what they say is Iran's interference in the
region and calling for an end to missile tests. Diplomats said
Mogherini wants to see the SPV established first.
An EU official denied any split in policy between Mogherini
and EU governments, saying the statement will be published as
soon as the SPV is launched.
EU diplomats said eastern European governments could also go
too far against Iran to please Trump in return for security
guarantees against Russia.
EU diplomats said there was a risk that a two-day conference
in Poland in February focused on the Middle East, particularly
Iran, convened by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, could
divide eastern and western Europe.
Mogherini is unable to attend due to another official
engagement, an EU official said, and it is not clear at what
level France, Britain and Germany will be represented.
"There are clearly risks in attending," another diplomat
said. "While we don't think Iran will withdraw from the nuclear
deal, we don't need to force them into the abyss and deepen an
arms race in the Middle East."
(Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Dubai and Arshad
Mohammed in Washington; editing by Anna Willard)
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