updated 6/22/2009 5:49:58 PM ET 2009-06-22T21:49:58

Europe has stepped up pressure on Iran to end its bloody crackdown on street protests, feeling less constrained to speak out than President Barack Obama — who has made engagement with the Islamic Republic a keystone of U.S. foreign policy.

But like Obama, European leaders have tempered their reaction, wary of crossing a line that could make matters worse for the dissenters in Tehran and undermine efforts to contain Iranian nuclear ambitions.

There has been no talk of diplomatic sanctions or curtailing business ties, which could rebound against Europe at a time when Iran is increasingly seen as an essential partner in dealing with regional issues from Afghanistan and Iraq to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In a coordinated action Monday, European countries summoned Iranian diplomats to their foreign ministries to deliver stern warnings against continuing the violence meted out to demonstrators who allege that the outcome of Iran's June 12 presidential election was rigged.

The Czech Republic, which holds the rotating presidency of the 27-nation European Union, rejected Iranian claims of interference, telling the country's ambassador in Prague that the EU has the right to question "whether the objective criteria of a transparent and democratic electoral process have been upheld in any country."

The Czech Foreign Ministry also expressed "revulsion at the documented police violence against peaceful protesters," and asked all EU countries to pass on the same message through diplomatic channels.

Striking a balance
The European response is an attempt to strike a balance. They must respond to public pressure at home, where Iranian expatriates and their supporters have demonstrated by the thousands in European capitals, while avoiding any perception of fomenting riots inside Iran and prompting Iran to take even tougher measures.

The United States has little leverage with Tehran. Formal relations were broken off after hardline students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979, and the U.S. has imposed trade sanctions on all but humanitarian goods and basic foodstuffs.

The Europeans, who have extensive trade ties with Iran, are the lead negotiators in trying to rein in Iran's nuclear program to prevent it from producing weapons, and they are reluctant to use their economic leverage over the election protests.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has called on Iran to recount the votes of the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but stopped short of alleging electoral fraud. She also urged Iran to stop using force against demonstrators, free detained opposition members and allow free media reporting.

On Monday, her spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm rejected Tehran's charges of European meddling in Iran's domestic affairs. "We have instead demanded that international laws be upheld," he told reporters in Berlin.

Taking the heat
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been outspoken in his criticism of Iran's response to the demonstrations, but said doors must remain open to continue talks on the country's nuclear program.

The European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, criticized Iran's expulsion of a British reporter and the prevention of coverage of the protests by foreign media.

Such tough talk has allowed Europe to take the heat for the U.S., which would otherwise be an easy target for the Iranian regime.

The Obama administration has refrained from commenting on Iran since last week, when the president challenged Iran's government to halt a "violent and unjust" crackdown on dissenters. Republican members of Congress criticized his response as timid and questioned why he was allowing the Europeans to take the lead.

"The last thing that I want to do is to have the United States be a foil for those forces inside Iran who would love nothing better than to make this an argument about the United States," Obama said in an interview taped Friday and broadcast Monday. "We shouldn't be playing into that."

Britain singled out
That suits the Iranian leadership, which also doesn't want a fight with the American president, says Clara O'Donnell, a research fellow at the European Institute for Policy Reform in London.

Iran's wrath has been particularly fierce against Britain, she said. At Friday prayers, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accused Western countries of blatant interference, singling out Britain as "the most evil among them."

"It's interesting that the U.K. is being targeted, not the U.S.," said O'Donnell. "The Iranian regime doesn't want to close off that avenue completely, and it's easier to portray the U.K. as the problem because at the end of the day they know the real country they need to deal with is the U.S."

On Monday, Britain became the first country to order the evacuation of families of diplomatic staff in Tehran, saying they were unable to lead normal lives in the strife-filled city. A Foreign Office statement said staff members were not being withdrawn, and it was not advising other British citizens to leave.

Unified response
Europeans are expected to continue collaborating on their response, and the Iranian issue will be up for discussion in coming meetings. Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis, whose country heads the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said developments in Iran were sure to be come up at an OSCE meeting this weekend on Corfu.

Iran's first direct confrontation with Europe could come at a foreign minister's meeting this week in Italy of the Group of Eight industrialized countries and several other nations, to which Tehran is invited.

But in a sign of testiness with Iran, Italy said Monday it will consider Iran's G-8 invitation rejected if the country does not reply by the end of the day.

Italy has instructed its embassy in Iran to provide humanitarian aid to protesters wounded during the clashes, pending a EU-wide proposal to coordinate assistance, said Foreign Ministry spokesman Maurizio Massari. The Italian Embassy has received no such requests for assistance, he said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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