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EU scrambles to rein in a wider spill-over in the Israel-Iran conflict

People take part in a demonstration of solidarity with Israel in Berlin, Sunday, April 14, 2024 following the Iranian attacks on Israel overnight.
People take part in a demonstration of solidarity with Israel in Berlin, Sunday, April 14, 2024 following the Iranian attacks on Israel overnight. Copyright Markus Schreiber/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved
Copyright Markus Schreiber/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved
By Mared Gwyn JonesMaria Psara
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As Israel weighs its options for a potential response to Iran's aerial attack on Saturday, its European allies are pleading for restraint to prevent a major regional spillover of the conflict.

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The attack, which saw Tehran launch some 300 drones, ballistic and cruise missiles in its first state-on-state attack against Israel, has drawn fierce condemnation from European leaders, who have firmly stood by Israel's side.

But as Netanyahu's war cabinet mulls a direct response, Europe is also scrambling to rein in a potential Israeli retaliation and prevent further escalation.

A joint statement issued on behalf of the bloc's member states by top diplomat Josep Borrell reiterates the bloc’s "commitment to the security of Israel," but calls on "all parties to exercise utmost restraint."

Iran's attack was a response to Israel's airstrike on its consulate in the Syrian capital of Damascus on April 1, which saw seven members of its Revolutionary Guard, including two top commanders, killed.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who was due to meet Borrell in Paris on Monday, also told French media BFM TV that "we need to be by Israel’s side to ensure its protection to the maximum, but also to call for a limit to avoid an escalation.”

The EU's 27 foreign ministers will hold an extraordinary council meeting by videoconference on Tuesday to discuss its collective response to the escalation, seen as an inflexion point in the conflict gripping the Middle East.

The bloc could slap additional sanctions on Tehran in a bid to further pressure the Iranian regime to refrain from further escalation.

But it finds itself, once again, treading a fine line between doubling down on its support to Israel on the one hand, and urging Netanyahu's government to act within the boundaries of international law on the other.

Nuanced differences in Europe's stance on the issue are also coming to the fore.

Speaking in Paris on Monday morning, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock accused Iran of "leading the region to the edge of the abyss" and asserted that Israel had acted "defensively" to fend off the attack, which was almost entirely intercepted by Israeli and allied defences.

Baerbock, whose government is among the staunchest of Israel's allies, placed the onus directly on Iran to prevent further escalation.

"This escalation has shown that the region stands by Israel's side when it comes to containing Iran's behaviour," she added.

But the UK's Foreign Minister David Cameron, whose forces took part in the interception of the Iranian attack along with the US and France, appeared to recognise Iran's right to a response to the strike on its consulate in an interview with Sky News earlier on Friday.

"Countries have a right to respond when they feel they’ve suffered an aggression, of course they do," Cameron said, but condemned the scale of the Iranian response, saying that there could have been "thousands" of casualties.

Calls for restraint echo the line adopted by the White House. According to US officials, President Joe Biden has told Israel that its interception of missiles can be considered a victory and that a direct response may not be necessary.

Analysts agree that the security of the region hinges on Israel's response.

"The trajectory of the situation now depends on whether Israel feels the need to retaliate, including through potential direct attacks on Iran," explained Julien Barnes-Dacey of the European Centre for Foreign Relations.

"While there may be a sense of confidence in Israel, it would likely be a mistake to imagine that Iran won’t unleash a far more impactful response to strikes on its own territory which it will view in existential terms."

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Speaking to Euronews, Sven Biscop of the Egmont Institute suggested EU countries should also use both diplomatic and economic tools at their disposal to exert pressure on Israel not to seek retaliation.

"The EU potentially has a lot of leverage over Israel, a lot of economic leverage," Biscop said. "But of course, as long as some member states continue to support Israel more or less unconditionally, the EU is powerless to use that economic pressure instrument."

Calls for the EU to suspend its trade ties with Israel to pressure it into restraint in its war in Gaza have so far failed to garner unanimous support among member states.

EU foreign ministers to discuss response

The bloc's foreign ministers are expected to discuss their response to the attack on Tuesday, including potential sanctions on the Iranian regime.

Multiple sanctions are already in place in response to Tehran's proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and its persistent violations of human rights, including the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the regime's morality police in 2022.

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Asked on Monday if the bloc could decide to slap further sanctions in response to the attack against Israel, the EU's foreign policy spokesperson said: "Any other sanctions (...) is a process that is in the hands of the member states."

"We don't pre-announce, we don't pre-empt that process because it's confidential," the spokesperson added.

The spokesperson also firmly dismissed allegations of "double standards" in the EU's stance on the conflict, pointing out that it had also condemned Israel's attack on Iran's Damascus consulate earlier in April.

"We issued a statement on it (Israel's attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus), condemning clearly this attack, condemning it because we have seen it also as another potential risk of escalation and as a violation of diplomatic premises," the spokesperson asserted.

"So there is absolutely no double standard. We condemn things as they happen if they are in violation of international law."

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Iran has summoned the British, French and German ambassadors over what it claims to be the "double standards" of these governments in their condemnation of Saturday's attack, whilst they rejected a UN Security Council resolution tabled by Russia condemning Israel's strike on Iran's diplomatic premises in Damascus.

Belgium, Germany and the Czech Republic have both summoned their Iranian ambassadors following Tehran's attack.

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