With the survival of the Atlantic Alliance very much on their minds, West European governments are cautiously planning to adopt limited sanctions against Iran.
The move, which will be discussed April 22 at a meeting of European Community (EC) foreign ministers in Luxembourg, is designed as much at mollifying American political and public attitudes toward Europe as it is at securing the release of American Embassy captives in Tehran.
But there is widespread opinion in Europe that increased pressure against Iran might prove to be counterproductive in securing the release of the US hostages and might threaten future ties with Iran. The community is therefore determined to avoid breaking off diplomatic relations with Tehran.
European sources here have also said that in return for supporting US economic pressure directed at Iran, Europe will insist that United States refrain from military action against Tehran.
This desire to retain a certain balance in dealings with the United States and nations with which it is at odds has and will continue to color European policies toward Iran and the Soviet Union.
The next European step will take place this week in Luxembourg when EC foreign ministers are expected to support economic sanctions contained in a recent UN Security Council resolution vetoed by the Soviet Union. Sources attending a preliminary meeting of EC ambassador here last week on the subject said, however, that France, Italy, and Denmark were still reluctant to impose some of the economic sanctions under consideration.
Also in Luxembourg to consult with his European colleagues on the difficult Iranian issue will be the Japanese foreign minister, whose country is more dependent on Iranian oil than is Europe.
It was uncertain at this writing whether the April 22 foreign minister's meeting would announce all the measures to be taken or leave that role to the forthcoming EC summit meeting April 27 and 28, also in Luxembourg. This would have the effect of delaying the actual European measures until shortly before the Iranian parliamentary elections that some see as possibly leading to a resolution of the hostage issue.
Among the EC steps under consideration are export and import trade embargoes with Iran, denial of tariff concessions for developing countries or export credits, and a freeze in Iranian assets. A move to break diplomatic relations is seen as a last resort.
While France, Italy, and Denmark have been cautious about their support for such moves, other European states such as West Germany, Great Britain, Belgium and Portugal have expressed concern about the impact on US-European relations, should Europe fail to act.
One British source said that his country "has to come to the conclusion that we have to do something even if we don't like it. And it can't be cosmetic or just token gestures."
But Belgium's Foreign Minister Henri Simonet also noted the European hope that such support will dter more aggressive US action. "If President Carter proceeds to mine the Gulf after European governments give him the support he sought, the alliance will plunge into a full-blown crisis," he reportedly said.
Europe is also weighing its next moves in the Iranian crisis. A recent American statement warned that the continued US defense of Europe is closely linked to the situatin in the Gulf and Indian Ocean.
This sobering confirmation of news Europeans feared might arise out of the chaos in Iran and nearby Afghanistan was delivered here this past week by a senior US Defense Department official at a meeting of NATO ministers.
"I did explain some of the facts of life," acknowledged the Pentagon policymaker after the NATO talks that, "if an emergency arose we might have to shift naval, air, and land reenforcement forces destined for Europe to the Persian Gulf-Indian Ocean area."
While reassuring that the United States was not considering withdrawing troops from Central Europe, he made clear that some personnel may be shifted out of the Mediterranean and that many types of equipment may also be transferred. He vigorously called for European governments to fill the gap or face the consequences of a weakened deterrent in Europe.
"Under the division of labor," the official noted, "if we have to go off and defend Western interests in the Middle East, then other allies should make up the slack."