EU to meet on Iran sanctions amidst UK embassy furor

Diplomats say embassy storming has added to the already long list of factors playing against Tehran.

Iranians burn British flag 311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Iranians burn British flag 311
(photo credit: Reuters)
The storming of the British Embassy compound in Tehran could provide extra ammunition to European governments pushing for stronger sanctions against Iran – in particular a contentious embargo on Iranian oil, diplomats said Wednesday.
EU foreign ministers plan to meet in Brussels on Thursday to map out Europe’s response to a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency in recent weeks that suggested Iran has worked on designing an atom bomb.
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Much has already been agreed – the EU will add 180 names to a list of people and entities targeted by pan-European sanctions – but a number of EU capitals have yet to decide exactly how much economic pressure the EU should apply on Iran over its nuclear program, which it says is peaceful.
Tuesday’s attack on the British Embassy by dozens of students and protesters angry over Britain’s unilateral sanctions could go some way towards convincing them stronger action is needed, diplomats said.
“From a political point of view this [attack] cannot, I think, work in the direction of EU-member states wanting to ease pressure on Iran,” the diplomat said. “On the contrary. The whole question is do we go further and add a new set of sanctions apart from those adopted in the past?” Britain shut down the Iranian Embassy in London and evacuated all its staff on Wednesday, while Germany recalled its ambassador to Iran.
British diplomats said Wednesday the storming of the British diplomatic mission in Tehran could not have taken place without some degree of consent from Iranian authorities.
Foreign Secretary William Hague also said the British Embassy in Tehran had been closed and all staff evacuated following the attack on Tuesday by a crowd that broke through gates, ransacked offices and burned British flags in a protest over sanctions imposed by Britain on the Tehran government.
It was the most violent incident so far as relations between the two countries steadily deteriorate due to Iran’s wider dispute with the West over its nuclear program.
On top of its ban on British financial institutions dealing with Iran and its central bank last week, Britain has called for further measures, and a diplomatic source said London would now support a ban on oil imports from the Islamic Republic.
Hague said Iranian ambassadors across the European Union had been summoned to receive strong protests over the incident. But Britain stopped short of severing ties with Iran completely.
“The Iranian charge [d’affaires] in London is being informed now that we require the immediate closure of the Iranian Embassy in London and that all Iranian diplomatic staff must leave the United Kingdom within the next 48 hours,” Hague told parliament.
“We have now closed the British Embassy in Tehran. We have decided to evacuate all our staff and, as of the last few minutes, the last of our UK-based staff have now left Iran.”
It was the worst crisis between Britain and Iran since full diplomatic relations were restored in 1999, 10 years after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s fatwa to kill author Salman Rushdie for his book The Satanic Verses.
Hague said it was “fanciful” to think the Iranian authorities could not have protected the British Embassy, or that the assault could have taken place without “some degree of regime consent.”
“This does not amount to the severing of diplomatic relations in their entirety. It is action that reduces our relations with Iran to the lowest level consistent with the maintenance of diplomatic relations,” he said.
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British Prime Minister David Cameron chaired meetings of the government’s crisis committee on Tuesday night and again on Wednesday morning to decide London’s response.
But mindful of the 1979 seizure of the US embassy in Tehran, when radical students held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days, Britain waited till all its two dozen diplomatic staff and dependents left the country to announce its move.
“It’s rock bottom as far as Anglo-Iranian relations are concerned,” said Ali Ansari, director of the Institute for Iranian Studies at St. Andrews University in Scotland. “The Iranians have a mountain to climb. I don’t think they fully understand how difficult it is for them now.”
Negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program are now “dead,” he said.
“What you are moving into is a period of containment and quarantine. I don’t think we are into a military confrontation, but we are into a period of containment and they [the West] are going to try and tighten the noose.”
In another response the the storming of the British Embassy compounds, Germany’s Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle recalled on Wednesday the country’s ambassador to Iran. The German daily Tagesspiegel and other media reported that Westerwelle recalled Ambassador Bernd Ebel.
Germany’s Foreign Ministry summoned Iran’s Ambassador Ali Reza Seikh Attar for a warning because of the violation of diplomatic protocol and international law. According to a statement on the website of the German Foreign Ministry: “Guido Westerwelle condemned sharply the storming of the British Embassy in Tehran on November 29.
“Germany stands on the side of Great Britain and is not prepared to accept these types of attacks. Iran has the obligation to protect international institutions. The Iranian Ambassador in Berlin was summoned because of the attack to the Foreign Ministry.”
Germany has also reduced its diplomatic staff in Tehran after the assault on the embassy.
The highly unusual move to recall Ebel, who had praised the “treasured” German-Iranian relationship during his arrival to Tehran several years ago, raised eyebrows.
Nasrin Amirsedghi, a German- Iranian intellectual, told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday she “is pleased” with Germany’s decision to recall its ambassador and sees it as “sign of solidarity” with the United Kingdom.
She told the Post in a telephone conversation that “I wish it had happened earlier” and stressed that the Federal Republic should break all diplomatic contact with Iran, including expelling the Iranian Ambassador to Berlin.
She termed the measure a “halfsanction” and said it is important that Germany “endures its love sickness.”
Critics, like The Wall Street Journal Europe’s editorial page, have run editorials over the years stating “Germany loves Iran” because diplomatic, political and economic relations remain strong.
French Foreign Ministry Spokesman Bernard Valero said that following the embassy attack, Paris would push foreign ministers in Brussels to look at sanctions beyond what had already been agreed – especially proposals made by President Nicolas Sarkozy to freeze the central bank’s assets and to ban oil imports.
French sources say Paris feels the attack has added to the already long list of factors playing against Tehran, and those that have wavered will be more inclined to listen to the French proposals.
In the past week, some EU capitals have insisted it is too early to adopt them, concerned about the economic consequences of tighter restrictions on a big OPEC-oil producer.
Experts says a European embargo could boost global crude prices at a time when Europe is teetering on the brink of recession and struggling with a mounting debt crisis.
Greece, in particular, has expressed reluctance, EU diplomats say.
Traders say debt-strapped Athens has been relying on Iranian oil, which comes with an attractive financing offer at a time when banks are increasingly denying it credit.
In addition to discussing sanctions, EU governments are expected to issue a stern warning to Tehran over the attack on Britain’s interests, expressing their “outrage,” EU diplomats said, using a word seldom used in diplomat communiques.
Washington had sharp words for Iran in the wake of Tuesday’s attack on the British Embassy in Tehran.
Hours after the White House released a statement condemning the attack the State Department expressed “outrage” at the rampage that led to the withdrawal of the UK’s diplomatic corps from Iran on Wednesday.
“It’s another example of Iran’s disregard for its international obligations,” said State Department Spokesman Mark Toner. “They need to uphold their obligations under the Vienna Convention and they need to protect the security and safety of diplomats in Tehran. It’s hard to say, frankly, but we do believe – as we’ve said before – that taken in totality, that the economic sanctions against Iran are beginning to have an effect.”
Earlier, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said in a statement that “the United States condemns in the strongest terms the storming of the British Embassy in Tehran. Iran has a responsibility to protect the diplomatic missions present in its country and the personnel stationed at them.
“We urge Iran to fully respect its international obligations, to condemn the incident, to prosecute the offenders and to ensure that no further such incidents take place either at the British Embassy or any other mission in Iran.”