STOCKHOLM -- Sweden found its diplomatic prowess tested on the very first morning of its European Union Presidency as relations between Iran and the bloc appear to be heading into free fall.
EU diplomats say member states are calling for a temporary mass pullout of the bloc's ambassadors from Tehran in protest over the arrests of nine of the British Embassy's Iranian staff on charges of sedition last week.
Five of the nine have been freed, but the four remaining prisoners stand accused of inciting some of the mass protests which followed Mahmud Ahmadinejad's disputed victory in the June 12 presidential elections.
Fredrik Reinfeldt, the Swedish prime minister, who will spearhead the EU's diplomatic efforts on the international stage for the next half-year, today called the Iranian accusations "ungrounded and incorrect." He warned Tehran not to "polarize" itself from the rest of the world.
"We hope that the Iranian leadership will be able to see what is happening in Iran as a cry for more freedom and more reforms -- and not something that will become grounds for a conflict between Iran and the world outside it," he said.
The Swedish premier did not directly comment on suggestions that the EU may be considering withdrawing its ambassadors from Tehran. He said the EU will "follow developments closely" and look for a "balanced" response. Reinfeldt also said it is crucial the EU stand united on the issue.Expect The Unexpected
The EU's freedom to maneuver will be hampered by the bloc's wish to retain workable channels of communication to the Iranian regime in a bid to ensure that the dispute over the country's nuclear program can be resolved through diplomatic means.
Swedish officials in Stockholm stress the country is prepared to expect the unexpected on the world stage during its six-month presidency. A senior diplomat downplayed suggestions, however, that the country might be faced with a repeat Russian invasion of Georgia later this summer.
Tourists take pictures inside Stockholm City Hall, site of the official opening ceremonies for the Swedish Presidency.
An EU troika -- comprising Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, the EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, and the external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner -- will head to the South Caucasus on July 14.
Privately, Swedish officials admit Russia could prove a tough nut to crack for the relatively small Scandinavian country in its role as EU chair -- and not only with regard to Georgia.
There are increasing fears in Brussels that Russia is preparing for another gas spat with Ukraine, which could have dire consequences for nearly half of the EU member states, which are heavily dependent on Russian natural gas.
Officials in Stockholm say Russia is liable to play the divide-and-conquer card in any crisis situation and attempt to use bilateral channels of communication with Berlin, Paris, and other EU capitals to undermine Swedish efforts to organize a joint EU response.
A senior Swedish figure told RFE/RL that Foreign Minister Carl Bildt's evocation of the situation in the 1930s in the wake of the Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008 was not a "good" idea and could compromise Sweden's standing as a mediator in a crisis.
Bildt had compared Russia's invasion as similar to that of Adolf Hitler, who used the presence of large German minorities in Poland and Czechoslovakia as a pretext for entering those countries.
Focus On Climate Change
Outlining the Swedish Presidency's priorities today, Prime Minister Reinfeldt reiterated they will be topped by the fight against climate change.
"Our generation's perhaps most important and greatest challenge [is] to manage climate change. There is no time to lose," he said. "We are going to do everything within our powers to get a consensus on a global climate accord in Copenhagen in December."
The other major Swedish concern will be the ongoing financial crisis.
The president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, said today the EU will attempt to seize the opportunity to forge a greener and low-carbon "new economy" as the economic downturn begins to recover.
Sweden's tasks will be complicated by the institutional interregnum currently holding sway in the EU. Barroso himself, although nominated for a second term by EU leaders last month, faces a confirmation vote in the European Parliament on July 15 whose result remains unpredictable.
The outcome of a repeat Irish referendum on the EU's constitutional Lisbon Treaty in October will be crucial in determining the EU's course -- and resolve on the global stage -- for years to come.
Reinfeldt warned the bloc's continued preoccupation with "inward-looking" internal matters could jeopardize its global leadership role, above all in counteracting climate change.
The Swedish Presidency will also inherit a largely moribund enlargement process, with candidate countries Croatia, Turkey, and Macedonia finding their bids to join the EU hamstrung by bilateral spats with a number of existing EU member states.
Reinfeldt indicated other challenges will force the Swedish EU Presidency to put the bloc's Eastern Partnership initiative on the back burner for the coming months. No new major initiatives or meetings are foreseen for the next six months.RFE/RL correspondent Ahto Lobjakas is among a group of Brussels-based correspondents flown to Stockholm by the Swedish government for the occasion of the start of its EU Presidency.
Disputed Presidential Vote
There have been protests and clashes with police on the streets of Tehran following the disputed reelection of Mahmud Ahmadinejad. RFE/RL collects videos, photos, and messages on social-networking sites coming out of Iran to attempt to get a picture of what is happening inside the country. Click here
RFE/RL's Full Coverage
Following the disputed reelection of Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, supporters of Mir Hossein Musavi have taken to the streets to protest. Click here
for news, blogs, and analysis of the presidential election and aftermath.