Individual Western European countries are prepared to give their full backing to President Carter's package of measures against Iran, even if this means withdrawing diplomats from Tehran and implementing trade sanctions. But Europe's most powerful political and economic bloc, the European Community (EC) remains unwilling to coordinate such a response.
This emerged here this week following a ministerial meeting at the 21-nation Council of Europe during which the "Nine" EC members took the opportunity to define their policy toward Mr. Carter's latest brinkmanship over Iran.
The EC foreign ministers broke in a significant way with their previously moderated stand, by issuing a strongly worded ultimatum to Iranian President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr. The statement called for Mr. Bani-Sadr to set a precise date for the release of the hostages and give precise details about how such a release should take place.
The EC reaffirmed its condemnation of the hostages' detention, and its solidarity with the US.It also recalled previous efforts to secure their release and asked Japan to participate in the new diplomatic offensive.
But according to the chairman of the EC meeting, Italian Foreign Minister Emilio Colombo, the Community had for the moment "reserved its judgment" on President Carter's call for sterner measures. Significantly Mr. Colombo stressed that EC ambassadors to Tehran would report to their governments on their meeting with President Bani-Sadr, but this did not mean the withdrawal of the diplomats from the Iranian capital.
As for the question of economic sanctions, Mr. Colombo said that this had not even been discussed during the Lisbon meeting.
What in effect amounts to the latest in a series of backdowns by the EC on the Iranian issue will most likely come as a blow to US officials keen on presenting a united Western front in the crisis.
As one observer here put it, "It seems that the Europeans are still more worried about oil than about any aspect of human rights."
But a number of European countries, especially the French, still believe that the best way to solve the problem of the hostages is to negotiate patiently. They feel that sanctions not only will not work but also will simply complicate the situation.
On the other hand there are EC member states that are increasingly showing approval for President Carter's tough stand and that have indicated that they, too, would like to throw down the gauntlet.
West Germany, Iran's largest trading partner in Europe, is ready to support economic sanctions, provided its partners in the EC agree to take similar action. The readiness of the West German government to support the US emerged this week after a Bonn Cabinet meeting.