Europeans reach out to Hizbollah's allies
European governments reached out to Hizbollah's foreign backers, Iran and Syria, yesterday in an attempt to engage them in a solution to the Lebanon war by recognising their importance for regional stability.
While the US, Israel's main backer, is unwilling to talk at a senior level to either country - seen as "rogue states" in Washington - European foreign ministers have no such taboo if dialogue can help extinguish fires in the Middle East.
"It is clear the stabilisation process in the Middle East must involve Iran and Syria. The politics of isolation of the past years has not borne fruit," Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema told a parliamentary committee in Rome.
But beyond making Syrian and Iranian leaders feel courted and respected, it is not clear what the Europeans can offer to persuade Damascus or Tehran to lean on Hizbollah guerrillas to stop firing missiles into Israel or accept eventual disarmament.
Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, a former EU Middle East peace envoy, met Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moualem in Damascus after talks in Beirut with the Lebanese government, including two Hizbollah loyalist ministers.
French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy met his Iranian counterpart, Manouchehr Mottaki, in Israeli-bombed Beirut on Monday and raised some eyebrows by saying Iran "plays a stabilising role in the region".
He sought to clarify that comment after EU foreign ministers held crisis talks in Brussels on Tuesday, saying: "Iran has a share of responsibility in the current situation, so Iran can play a role in its solution, and can therefore contribute to stabilisation in the region."
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana has also maintained regular telephone contact with Iran's national security chief, Ali Larijani, since the breakdown of talks on Tehran's nuclear ambitions on July 11, his office said.
Mr Solana said Mr Moratinos would be talking to the Syrians "doubtless on behalf of all of us, including myself".
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who said in a newspaper interview published on Tuesday that Syria was "too important a regional player to be excluded", telephoned Moualem yesterday, a ministry spokesman said.
Germany, which has brokered past prisoner exchanges between Israel and Hizbollah, also suggested that the Middle East Quartet - the US, UN, Russia and EU - plus possibly Egypt should play a role in peace efforts.
Both Syria and Iran are at loggerheads with the West - Damascus over its alleged role in the 2004 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri and Tehran over its nuclear programme, a suspected front for making a bomb.
Some diplomats speculate that Syria may be amenable to a political settlement if it gets assurances that President Bashar al-Assad will not be troubled further over the Hariri killing and the revival of a stalled EU economic cooperation package.
But others doubt Damascus will end military and logistical support for Hizbollah because Syria's undeclared policy since the 1970s has been that Israel cannot have peace on its Lebanon border as long as it occupies the Golan Heights.
"Moratinos certainly can't give them the Golan Heights," a Middle Eastern diplomat said.