The European Union, whose policy of "critical dialogue" with Iran was long a sore spot for the United States, now finds itself engaged in a game of "who will blink first" with Tehran.
EU efforts to resume normal relations with Iran have proved unavailing. Sources in the German Foreign Ministry speak of "a dialogue between deaf-mutes" and of "radio silence."
The chill between Iran and the EU began in April. The so-called Mykonos trial involved the murder of four Iranian dissidents in a Berlin restaurant by that name. A German court found that the murders had been ordered by figures at the highest levels of the Iranian government, including the supreme spiritual leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Although some 60 murders of Iranian dissidents have been carried out in Europe since the Iranian revolution of 1979, this was the first case in which a court explicitly blamed the Tehran regime. The German ambassador in Iran was declared persona non grata and returned home.
The EU has often had trouble maintaining a united foreign policy. But in this case, all EU members but Greece recalled their ambassadors from Iran as well.
The election of a new Iranian president, the more liberal Mohammad Khatami, and appointment of a new Cabinet have meant that three of the four high officials specifically implicated in the Mykonos case have been replaced. (Only Ayatollah Khamenei remains in place.)
The new foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, has signaled his willingness to meet with this counterpart, German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel. Moreover, Mr. Kharrazi has invited EU ambassadors to return. But after signaling that the ambassadors could return "at any time," Iran subsequently made clear that an earlier, preelection stipulation, still holds: The German ambassador has to be the last to return.
"This does not correspond to the European view of the situation," a spokesman for Jacques Poos, foreign minister of Luxembourg, said recently. The EU, whose six-month rotating presidency is held by Luxembourg, wants the unconditional return of the ambassadors. The spokesman's words followed a fruitless visit by an EU envoy to Tehran, trying to reopen dialogue.
"Both sides are stuck," says Shireen Hunter, an Iran expert at the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels. Although the sequence of the return of ambassadors is not of itself a significant issue, the EU "can't accept anything that discriminates" among its members, she says. "They don't want to accept it as a principle; they don't want to knuckle under."
She notes that there were no EU ambassadors at the inauguration of the new Iranian president last month, adding, "The EU is sticking by one of their own [Germany] ... the one that pays the most" into the EU budget.
The Iranians took the implication of their leaders in the Mykonos case, especially Ayatollah Khamenei, as a "serious insult," Dr. Hunter says. They say the Berlin judge relied too heavily on the testimony of Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, an outspoken critic of the Tehran government.
STILL, observers see it as inevitable that sooner or later the EU will resume improved relations with Iran, a country the US has characterized as a "rogue state." US officials are using terms like "hopeful" and "open-minded" to describe the new leadership team in Iran.
But they insist that "deeds, not words" are what matters, and they are looking for improvements in several areas: ceasing terrorism and efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction, support for the Middle East peace process, and improvements in human rights.
The US would be "quite disturbed," as one source put it, if EU foreign ministers meet with their Iranian counterpart before some concrete steps are taken in these areas. Such a meeting may take place in New York later this month in connection with the United Nations General Assembly.
For reasons of trade but also for reasons of classical diplomacy - the belief in the power of talk - the EU, and particularly Germany, has long favored keeping lines open to Iran as an important regional power. The formal suspension of a "critical dialogue" since the Mykonos verdict represents a departure from this policy.
The US, by contrast, favors a policy of what Hunter calls "almost total quarantine for Iran."
A senior US official acknowledges that the US and Europe "may not have common policies toward Iran," but expresses the hope that "a common assessment" can be developed.
Hunter is less sanguine. She describes the gap between US and European policy on Iran as "almost unbridgeable."