EU starts trade talks with Iran
LUXEMBOURG -- The European Union is breaking ranks with Washington and is opening trade talks with Iran -- dubbed part of an "axis of evil" by President George W. Bush.
EU Commissioner for External Affairs Chris Patten was meeting Tehran's Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Brussels on Tuesday.
EU foreign ministers agreed on Monday to negotiate trade and co-operation agreements with Iran if it consults the EU on political and anti-terrorism issues.
The EU hopes such talks will give a boost to reformist President Mohammad Khatami.
The EU's External Affairs Commissioner, Chris Patten, told the BBC: "It can't seriously be anybody's idea of a good way of promoting stability in the region to think that we should isolate and cut Iran off for ever.
"If you don't talk to the reasonable people, you fetch up with fewer reasonable people to talk to."
CNN's European Political Editor Robin Oakley said most European leaders intended to go on courting the moderates in Iran and relying on diplomacy, despite the U.S. position.
"EU ambassadors were appalled when President George W. Bush included Iran in his 'axis of evil'. They argue that the West should create a dialogue with the reformers clustered around President Khatami rather than isolating them," he said.
"But Washington is not prepared to compromise with regimes which it regards as supportive of terrorism in any way. On Iran, there is simply no meeting of minds."
Financially the stakes are high. EU imports from Iran reached $7.3 billion in 2000, mostly oil products, while exports to Iran totalled $4.8 billion.
The decision by EU foreign ministers came after Britain, Germany and the Netherlands dropped their insistence on a single accord covering trade and a broad range of political and human rights issues.
France, Greece and Italy argued a hard-line approach would not make Iran any more co-operative in creating stability in the Middle East or Afghanistan.
In a statement, the EU foreign ministers said they hoped a trade and economic co-operation accord would lead to a "deepening of economic and commercial relations with Iran that should be matched by similar progress" in other areas.
In recent years, European oil companies have signed lucrative deals with Iran, which holds 7 percent of the world's proven oil reserves. American companies are prevented from following suit because of U.S. sanctions against Iran.
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