EU ambassadors may leave Iran

STOCKHOLM: The European Union on Thursday was considering Britain's request to pull the bloc's ambassadors from Iran, an extraordinary move that would send a powerful signal of EU unity in the wake of Tehran's postelection crackdown.

It is a delicate balancing act for the 27-member EU: Punishing the regime too harshly for the detention of British embassy staff in Tehran also risks spoiling chances to make headway on the critical issue of Iran's disputed nuclear program.

Some EU countries worry that pulling the bloc's ambassadors from Tehran would only serve to isolate the Iranian regime, cutting it off completely from outside influence.

Sweden, which holds the rotating EU presidency, believes that "maintaining relations" with Iran is crucial, said Irena Busic, spokeswoman for Foreign Minister Carl Bildt.

The issue was expected to be given high priority in a two-day meeting of EU foreign policy directors starting Thursday in Stockholm. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Europe, Phil Gordon, was set to take part in the meeting on Friday.

U.S. officials say they remain open to talks with Iran over its nuclear ambitions, despite questions about the legitimacy of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election and his belligerent anti-American rhetoric.

"We will be discussing matters such as the situation in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan," said Bjorn Lyrvall, political affairs director of Sweden's Foreign Ministry.

"President Obama has given high priority to this region and this is shared by the EU. And we will probably also discuss disarmament and the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons," Lyrvall said in a statement before the meeting.

Nuclear negotiations with Iran had stalled even before its crackdown on citizens demonstrating against what they say was a skewed election in favor of Ahmadinejad.

The detentions of local personnel at the British Embassy last week cranked up Iran's standoff with the West. Iranian state TV on Wednesday said Tehran released all but one of the employees.

Both Britain and the EU condemned the detentions as "harassment and intimidation."

Iran, which accuses Europe of supporting anti-government rallies, said the EU had disqualified itself from talks over Tehran's nuclear program because of its "interference" in the postelection unrest.

The EU "has totally lost the competence and qualifications needed for holding any kind of talks with Iran," Iran's chief of staff, Gen. Hasan Firouzabadi, was quoted as saying by the semiofficial Fars News Agency.

Political analysts said recalling ambassadors from Iran would send strong message of EU unity.

"I think the symbolic signal cannot be underestimated," said Shannon Kile, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. "The EU hasn't been able to act in a unified way vis-a-vis Iran on anything."

The main concern, he said, was that the move could help push Iran further into isolation, to a point where it "won't be possible to have any outside influence on its behavior."

The European Jewish Congress called on the EU to stand up to Iran's "bullying tactics."

"If the Iranians see how easily they can attack European institutions and get away with it, this will only embolden them for further outrages," congress president Moshe Kantor said in a statement.

The EU has so far refrained from sanctions against Iran. Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt said Wednesday that Europe and others must take care not to become "an excuse for use of violence or use of repression inside Iran."