Days after crowds in Tehran attacked two British diplomatic compounds, the European Union has restricted Iran further over its nuclear programme.
EU slaps further sanctions on Tehran
AMSTERDAM // Days after crowds in Tehran attacked two British diplomatic compounds, the European Union yesterday slapped further sanctions on Iran over its nuclear programme.
The body also issued a sharply worded statement condemning the embassy attack.
The council meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels agreed on measures against an additional 180 Iranian individuals and entities but stopped short of banning the import of Iranian oil, a step advocated by Germany and France.
"Given the EU's increasing concerns over the Iranian nuclear programme and the lack of progress in diplomatic efforts, the council has today strengthened the EU restrictive measures against that country," a statement from Brussels said.
The new sanctions are in response to a report earlier this month by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which renewed international concerns that Iran was developing the capacity to build nuclear weapons.
British measures against Iran, on the basis of the report, led to crowds breaking into the country's two diplomatic compounds in Tehran on Tuesday.
In return, and because of Iran's expulsion of the UK's ambassador, London expelled Iran's diplomats and several European countries also recalled their ambassadors for consultations.
The EU foreign ministers reserved their sharpest language for the attack on Britain's embassy and said they were "outraged".
But Iran yesterday freed 11 protesters, described as students, who were arrested for the attacks on the embassy compounds, while the powerful parliamentary speaker, Ali Larijani, called London's robust response "unjustifiable".
Radical student groups in Iran said they would hold a "ceremony to thank God for the breakdown of ties between Tehran and London".
The ransacking of the downtown embassy and a nearby residential compound for British staff has exposed divisions within Iran's leadership with the foreign ministry, thought to reflect the line of the president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.
On Wednesday it expressed regret for the embassy assault, deeming it "unacceptable".
But Mr Larijani, the speaker of parliament, who is said to be close to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told state television yesterday: "How long must we endure the presence of the British in Iran … when they commit treachery against the Iranian people?"
The increase in international tensions over Iran comes as diplomatic efforts to gain more oversight of their nuclear programme are stuck and a series of sanctions and restrictive measures go unheeded.
In some countries, such as Israel and the US, there is a continuing debate over possible military strikes to stop the programme.
Iran has denied pursuing nuclear weapons but the IAEA has pointed at several signs it may be, including improved uranium enrichment capacities and the installation of more enrichment centrifuges.
The debate over how to best handle Iran extends throughout the international community, the EU and within the UK. Fundamental differences have emerged both between British ministers and between their advisers over the wisdom of trying to impose an EU oil embargo on Iran.
"Those supporting an import ban argue Tehran would then have little option but to rely on China taking up the slack, and that the Chinese would only buy the extra oil if it got it at a hefty discount, leaving the Iranian regime with insufficient income to pay its bills," said a diplomatic source in London.
"On the other side of the coin is the risk that an EU boycott would send world oil prices soaring, doing great damage to economies that are already in a fragile state."
The British foreign secretary, William Hague, insisted yesterday that new EU measures against Iran should be directed against Tehran's nuclear programme and not as a retaliation to the storming of the UK embassy.
"These are not measures that are in reaction to our embassy. There has been a range of other reactions to that," he told the BBC immediately before the start of the Brussels meeting. The EU steps are unlikely to be the last word on measures against Iran, said Daniel Korski of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
"There will be another round of sanctions, presumably in the future," he added. "The bottom line is those arguing for a tougher line can live to fight another day. If they don't get it this time, they can argue for it at a future time."
The EU stressed at several points in its statements that it preferred a negotiated, diplomatic solution to the Iranian issue. Mr Korski said this is where Europe may be able to play a role, especially at a time when the US is focusing on its presidential elections next year.
"It is hard to see the US playing any kind of meaningful role beyond carrying a large stick and I think Europe is the only power that retains the ability to wield both a stick and a carrot credibly."
* Additional reporting by David Sapsted in London and Michael Theodoulou in Nicosia