Does the EU really want to hurt you, Iran?

European ministers are meeting today to discuss an oil embargo on Iran.  The run-up to the meeting has been dogged by reports that some impoverished EU members – notably Italy and Greece – have questioned the initiative.  The Iranians may think that the EU won’t do them real damage, as I point out in a new column for E!Sharp:

There is a general impression that the EU would not hurt a fly.  Instead, it might launch a strategic partnership with the fly, hold annual meetings with the little creature, and possibly fund a Brussels-based think-tank to produce a report entitled “Achieving a Sustainable EU-Fly Relationship by 2025”.

That is the image that many EU officials want to project.  “The strength of the EU lies, paradoxically, in its inability to throw its weight around,” Catherine Ashton declared in February last year. “In short, the EU has soft power with a hard edge – more than the power to set a good example and promote our values. But less than the power to impose its will.”  Yet the EU was throwing its weight around just then.

The EU’s top target one year ago was Laurent Gbagbo, who was refusing to accept the UN’s decision that he had lost elections in Côte d’Ivoire in November 2010.  A brutal but wily operator, Gbagbo had unleashed thugs on his opponents, menaced UN peacekeepers and bamboozled African mediators.

But the UN had mandated sanctions against his regime and the EU took the lead in implementing them.  In a very un-European moment of nastiness, Ashton’s spokesperson told a reporter that the “priority is on the economic asphyxia of Gbagbo’s regime.”  When I read that menacing line, I wanted to cheer.

Things turned out pretty badly for Mr Gbagbo, who was undercut by the EU sanctions and is now at the ICC.  The Syrian regime is also struggling with Euro-sanctions:

The EU first imposed sanctions on individual Syrian officials as violence in the country escalated in May last year, but raised the stakes by deciding to stop importing Syrian oil in the autumn.  Although the Syrian regime has held on to power – and continued its vicious campaign against protestors – the EU’s sanctions have had an impact.  Companies like Shell have pulled out.  With its energy sector under siege, Damascus has struggled to supply its own population with fuel.  The Financial Times reports that the price of subsidized cooking gas for normal Syrians had now tripled.

Syria’s President Assad has accused the Europeans of persecuting innocent civilians.  Nobody should be proud that poor Syrians have been affected by the price hikes – even leaving ethical issues aside, it is arguable that some citizens feel greater solidarity with the regime in the face of EU pressure.   But Côte d’Ivoire and Syria both show that, at least when it comes to sanctions, the EU has more than “soft power with a hard edge”.  It has straightforward hard power – even if it is economic not military.

Iran is, of course, a rather tougher target.  But the EU may do it real damage.