Europe used to be the good cop with Iran, engaging with the regime on tricky issues like its nuclear program while the bad cop, the U.S., rasped that Tehran was part of an "axis of evil." But the European Union's moderating stance has done it few favors in the wake of last month's disputed Iranian elections. On Wednesday, Iran's military chief of staff, Major General Hassan Firouz-Abadi, accused the E.U. of "interference in the postelection riots." He said that, as a result, the E.U. had "lost its qualification" to hold talks on Iran's controversial nuclear program, and he demanded an apology for its "huge mistakes."
As the Iranian leadership ratchets up the rhetoric, the E.U. faces a dilemma. Does it respond in kind, by imposing new sanctions or withdrawing its ambassadors, or does it try to maintain leverage by keeping the channels of dialogue open?
Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt whose country has just taken over the E.U.'s six-month presidency has acknowledged that the 27-nation bloc has a delicate balancing act to perform. He told reporters on Wednesday that the E.U. should show support for calls for reform from the people of Iran but "must not polarize Iran from the rest of the world so that we are made an excuse for the use of violence and oppression inside Iran."
The E.U. has been vocal in criticizing the June 12 presidential election that returned hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power and prompted violent street clashes. But the individual E.U. member states each have different relationships with Iran.
Britain is the target of most of Tehran's criticism: last weekend, nine British embassy staff were arrested for allegedly playing a role in the street protests, although all but one have since been released. Britain, backed by France, says the E.U. should take a firmer position on Iran and has called for envoys to be withdrawn. But Germany and Italy Iran's biggest trading partners in the E.U. argue that lines of communication should be kept intact, especially as Tehran is already reeling under the weight of sanctions.
The E.U. also has to decide how far it can take its nuclear negotiations with Tehran. Iran says it is enriching uranium for power plants, but many countries suspect the oil-rich nation ultimately plans to build a bomb. Three E.U. states Germany, France and the U.K. have been leading the talks, but their proposed incentives for Iran to stop its nuclear activities have so far been spurned by Iranian negotiators. If the E.U. hardens its stance, however, it may extinguish any lingering chance of a diplomatic solution to Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Some think the E.U. has to show some teeth to maintain its credibility. "The E.U. needs to show that its position is associated with the U.S., with its implicit threat of coercive action," says Daniel Korski, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Noting that Iran's economy is struggling oil is now below $68 a barrel and the recent turmoil will further deter foreign investment Korski says the government has a long-term interest in repairing its relationship with the E.U. "Iran may rant and rage, but that doesn't mean the E.U. is being kicked around," he says. "As long as the Iranian economy is as decrepit as it is, Iran will need to engage."
The situation is complicated by Obama's attempt to turn a new page in U.S. relations with Tehran, including seeking its cooperation in efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and Iraq. So far, the U.S. President has been measured in his response to Iran's elections, and has escaped direct criticism from the Iranian regime. With Obama now a more elusive target, Iran has redirected the full force of its anger at the E.U.
But in the longer term, the question could be less about how Europe responds to Iran, and more about how Iran tries to woo back Europe. "Iran is lashing out and fabricating various allegations. But this will harm Iran more than it harms the E.U.," says Sir Richard Dalton, associate fellow at the international-affairs institute Chatham House in London. Dalton believes that behind Iran's prickly attitude is insecurity about the country's relative weakness compared to the E.U. "Iran needs Europe it needs the trade, it needs support in international organizations and it needs to maintain a strong image to the outside world," he says. "The E.U. has influence, and when it takes collective actions, others take notice, and Iran does not come off well. Iran is in a difficult situation and it knows that it will eventually have to engage in more discussions." Until then, whatever the E.U.'s eventual response, it can expect more invective.