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Europe's patience with Iran carries thin, tiptoe to Trump



BRUSSELS / PARIS (Reuters) – In Tehran on January 8 during a meeting with European broadcasts, the Iranian officials suddenly stood up, went out and slammed the door in an extraordinary pause with protocol.

MOVIE PHOTO: Iran-made Emad missile is shown during a ceremony marking the 37th anniversary of the Islamic revolution in Tehran on February 11, 2016. REUTERS / Raheb Homavandi // Photo

The French, British, German, Danish, Dutch and Belgian diplomats in the Iranian foreign ministry's room had hampered officials with a message that Europe could no longer tolerate ballistic missile tests in Iran and murder 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 that the relationship is getting more exciting," said a second.

An Iranian official refused to comment on the meeting.

The next day, the European Union imposed its first sanctions on Iran, as world powers agreed that arms control in Vienna in 2015 deals with Tehran.

The sanctions were largely symbolic, but the stormy meeting encapsulated the unexpected shift in European diplomacy since last year's end. Smaller, wiser EU countries have joined France and Britain in a harder stance on Tehran, including in view of new economic sanctions, diplomats say.

They could include asset freezes and travel bans against Iran's revolutionary guards and Iranians who develop the ballistic missile program of the Islamic Republic, said three diplomats.

The new approach moves Europe closer to US President Donald Trump's policy of isolating Iran with severe sanctions, although European governments still support the 2015 agreement in Vienna, from which he resigned in May.

Although there are divergent views in Europe, the shift may have implications for President Hassan Rouhani's government, as European capitals seem to save this deal.

It can also strengthen the anti-Western mood of Iran and lead to more aggressive Iranian movements around the Middle East, where the Islamic Republic is involved in proxy wars with its main regional rival Saudi Arabia.

Iran's launch of short-range ballistic missiles in Syria on September 30, missile tests and a satellite launch this month have niggled Western powers.

For Europe, alleged slaughtering of Iran on French and Danish soil in 2018 was the last straw, diplomats say.

Tehran denies the plots and says the missile tests are purely defensive.

"The allegations against Iran over the last few months have awakened some countries in Europe that were against a harder line in Iran," said a European-based diplomat in the Middle East.

On the day of the meeting, the Netherlands publicly accused Iran of killing its land in 2015 and 2017. Tehran denies any involvement. Then on January 9, the EU appointed a unit in Iran's Ministry of Intelligence a terrorist organization, froze its assets and the two men's.

"Take Dutch, for example. They had kept very quiet until the Danish attack, and now they are more hawkish than the French," said the diplomat.

Concerned about Trump & # 39; s "America First" policy, Europe's May 8 decision to withdraw from the Iran agreement considered a serious setback, but Iran's international ambitions seem to offer Brussels and Washington a chance to work closer.

A US Secretary of State said there was "a growing international consensus" on the scale of Iranian threats.

"The United States welcomes Europe's efforts to fight Iranian terrorism on European soil, its missile launches, human rights abuses and other threats," the official said.

DIALOGUE FALTS

When the Trump administration accused Iran last year of having nuclear ambitions and fancies 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, pushed for gestures about Iran's role in Syria's war and to help end the conflict in Yemen.

But several bilateral talks on the ballistic missile program have not produced results.

The EU tried to show Iran that compliance with the nuclear agreement would still bring economic benefits despite Trump's decision to reintroduce US sanctions and to abolish Iranian oil exports by pushing US allies.

The European Union must officially launch a mechanism, the SPV, to trade with Iran later this month, but it will not work for months. It will be registered in France, run by a German and probably to include Britain as a shareholder.

"There is a sense of frustration between Britain, France and Germany, and others, after the first phase of diplomacy with Iran," said another senior EU diplomat. "We thought we could get a stake from the Iranians in several areas."

Iran says Europe may not be able to protect nuclear trade anyway and accused European officials of dragging their feet.

Iranian Foreign Minister and senior nuclear negotiator Abbas Araqchi said last week that "operational steps" were needed from Europe as political support not enough.

Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, head of Iran's strong expert group, said Thursday Europe "would not do anything for us."

"Europeans are worse than Americans. If not, they are not better," he said, reported the state TV.

EU DISAGREEMENTS

In March, as part of the efforts to convince Trump to adhere to the nuclear agreement, France was proposed to freeze and ban the IRGC and Iranian companies and groups developing the missile program. document seen by Reuters.

Now, a similar set of measures has been drafted, say three diplomats.

"We prefer not to take these measures, but they must stop trying to kill people in our area and over the last three years they have strengthened their ballistic program," said a senior European diplomat.

Diplomats say getting all 28 EU members to agree to take time.

The EU's top diplomat Federica Mogherini, who helped seal the 2015 deal, is cautious about moving too fast for fear of provoking a complete collapse of the deal, four diplomats said.

EU Foreign Ministers planned to issue a rare joint statement on January 21 on what they say is Iran's disturbance in the region and call for an end to missile tests. Diplomats said Mogherini wants to see SPV established first.

An EU official denied any split in the policy of Mogherini and EU governments and said the statement will be made public as soon as 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, in particular Iran, convened by the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, could share Eastern and Western Europe.

Mogherini cannot participate 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 is clearly a risk of joining," another diplomat said. "Although we do not believe that Iran will withdraw from nuclear power, we do not have 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

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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