EU splits over Iran protest

Only 24 hours after a Berlin court verdict that Iran ordered the killing of four dissidents in the city in September 1992, the European Union's united front on Iran began to weaken. Cracks appeared in the wake of the Dutch government's invitation to recall ambassadors and suspend the union's critical dialogue with Tehran. To the astonishment of the Germans, Greece said it was not taking part in the action. Foreign ministry spokesman Dimitris Reppas said that isolating Iran was not the best way to protest.

Athens had reservations about the necessity of the measure which the Dutch EU presidency initiated last Thursday in solidarity with Germany. EU diplomats had stressed the importance of the swift agreement by all 15 member states. But the difficulty in maintaining a tough diplomatic line when member states' individual trade interests were at stake came to the fore.

Despite mounting United States pressure the EU appeared to back away from trade sanctions. "Recalling ambassadors is already very high on the Richter scale but cutting off trade would have to be done within a UN context," one diplomatic source said. The 15 foreign ministers meet in Malta next week for the Euro-Mediterranean conference and again on 29 April in Luxembourg when calls for restrictions on arms sales or technology could surface from Britain or the Scandinavian members. But with 30 per cent of all Iran's imports sourced in the EU its looks extremely unlikely that a majority would vote to sever commercial ties.

Germany, Italy and France benefit most from Iran's $3.2bn (pounds 2bn) imports from the EU annually and Ireland is heavily reliant on the Iranian market for its crucial beef export trade.

EU efforts to heal tensions with Washington over the US D'Amato "trading with the enemy" legislation will not be helped by a weak reaction to the German court ruling. The act seeks to penalise countries such as Italy with significant oil investments in Iran. President Rafsanjani has long sought to rehabilitate relations with the EU in an attempt to attract foreign investment and re-establish international respectability.

Germany kept a low diplomatic profile yesterday over its ties with Iran, saying it did not want to inflame the crisis sparked by the Berlin court verdict. "I don't want to say anything - for good reasons, in such a charged situation." Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel told reporters. "We have responsibility for the 530 Germans living in Iran."