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EU: The Question Of Future Relations With Iran

Prague, 29 April 1997 (RFE/RL) - High on the agenda of the European Union's foreign ministers, who began two days of meetings this morning in Luxembourg, was the sensitive question of the EU's future relations with Iran.

The issue is sensitive because, for one thing, there is no consensus within the 15 EU nations on how to conduct relations with Iran. It is now almost three weeks since a German court ruled that Teheran's Islamic Government was directly responsible for a political assassination on German soil five years ago. Following the judgment, the Union immediately recalled its ambassadors from Teheran in protest. It also suspended its extensive trade and its policy of so-called critical dialogue with Iran. But apart from Britain and perhaps a few smaller EU members, most now seem inclined to resume diplomatic as well as commercial relations with Iran.

The EU's much-vaunted policy of critical dialogue was based on the assumption that trading with Iran opened doors to EU members for discussion of human-rights issues. The EU is Iran's biggest trading partner, with Germany and France leading the list of those doing lucrative business with Teheran. Germany alone racked up some $1.5 billion of trade with Iran last year. Proponents of the EU's policy say that the Clinton Administration follows the same course in determining U.S. policy toward China.

But the U.S. considers Iran a terrorist nation and has often urged the EU to toughen its stance toward Teheran, which is another reason why today's Luxembourg discussions are delicate. Over the weekend, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wrote letters to the EU's 15 ministers asking them to continue their three-week suspension of trade with Iran. Her action followed a tour of European capitals last week by Undersecretary of State Peter Tarnoff, who sought to persuade EU nations to join the permanent U.S. trade embargo. Human-rights groups such as the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch have also urged a tougher EU stance toward Iran.

None of this U.S. pressure seems to have had much effect on EU members. State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns admitted that yesterday, saying "we don't think the EU is going to adopt our policy." Burns also said Washington was what he called "realistic" and hoped "to find some way to work together" with the Europeans.

In Brussels, EU officials -- who request anonymity -- say that the likely outcome of today's ministerial meeting will be a decision to return EU ambassadors to Teheran, although the suspension of the critical-dialogue policy will formally remain in effect for the time being. The officials add that the ministers will probably also issue a statement calling on Iran to respect international law and renounce terrorism. They also suggest that other measures, such as tightening rules on arms sales to Iran, will be discussed by the ministers.

"There is a lot of noise about the need for action (on Iran), but in the end the economic relationship is what counts," said one EU diplomat.

That's what Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is counting on. Soon after the April 10 German court ruling, he predicted that the EU would quickly go back to business as usual with Iran. Yesterday, state-run Teheran radio said "it appears that the EU has lost its enthusiasm for dealing negatively with Iran." Some EU diplomats respond by saying it's important for their ambassadors to be in Teheran in the run-up to next month's elections to replace Rafsanjani.

The EU's reluctance to toughen its policies toward Iran largely reflect the views and the diplomatic weight of its biggest member, Germany. Some German press commentators have savaged their government for what they consider its flabbiness on Iran. In a recent commentary in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung," entitled "As Steadfast as a Jelly Pudding," Tomas Avenarius recalled that, within hours of the German court's ruling, Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel had promised what he called a "fresh assessment" of Bonn's policy toward Iran.

Avenarius called Kinkel's remark "a resounding call that threatened to be forgotten even before it finished echoing." Noting the current EU disunity on the issue, he concluded by asking: "So, It's back to business as usual, Herr Kinkel?"