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4th Apr 2020

EU unready for Iran oil ban, Syria intervention

  • Bildt (l) and Juppe: Arab League observers in Syria maybe, Western troops No (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Crisis-hit Greece has said 'No' to an EU oil ban on Iran, causing relief among other member states. France, the most hawkish EU country on the Middle East, has also toned down ideas for outside intervention in Syria.

The developments took place at an EU foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels on Thursday (1 December).

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EU ministers did heap extra sanctions on the two Shia Muslim allies, however.

In Iran, they blacklisted 37 people and 143 entities with links to either the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Line or the Islamic Revolutionary Guards in a bid to discourage the building of nuclear weapons.

Reacting to the recent ransacking of the UK embassy in Tehran, EU countries spoke out in terms reminiscent of Nato's mutual defence clause. EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton quoted one minister who told the room: "An attack on one member state is an attack on us all."

The bloc also added 12 people and 11 entities to its Syria blacklist. The new measures will block Damascus from trading bonds, buying insurance, opening bank branches in the EU, buying oil and gas equipment and buying internet and phone snooping kit (an Italian firm was up until two weeks ago installing email interception equipment for Syrian intelligence in Damascus).

The two toughest options - an oil ban on Iran and international troops in Syria - are off the table for now.

Greece as late as 2010 bought just 16 percent of its oil from Iran and the rest from Russia, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, Libya and Iraq. But it now relies almost 100 percent on Iran, as international oil traders shun it for fear of a national default.

France had proposed the Iran oil ban. But one EU diplomat said the Greek opposition was welcomed by many EU capitals: "People don't say it out loud. But there is an understanding oil sanctions would hurt the EU rather than hitting Iran where it hurts and would make oil cheaper for China."

Juppe ahead of Thursday's EU meeting had also floated the idea of creating "humanitarian corridors" shielded by international troops to help deliver aid - a proposal that could give a safe base of operations for the rebel Free Syrian Army.

On the day, during talks in Brussels with Arab League leader Nabil al-Arabi, a smaller idea emerged to send "international observers ... to assess the situation, to provide assistance to people."

Another EU diplomat noted that even this would require Syrian President Bashar Assad to first agree, or a UN Security Council resolution - a dim prospect given the veto wielded by Moscow, an ally of Damascus, in the UN body.

For his part, Sweden's Carl Bildt ahead of the EU meeting backed sending in Arab League observers. But he repeated three times in the space of five minutes that Western troops are out of the question: "There are no discussions on military action ... There are no plans for military action ... The military option is off the table."

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