Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might have learned a thing or two if he had tagged along with a delegation of European lawmakers on their remarkable visit to Tehran this past October.
For one, he would have realized that, despite his claim, Iranians do wear jeans. If he had taken a stroll through the beautiful Karim Saee Park in the bustling metropolis’ downtown, he would have also noticed that Iranians are no strangers to body piercings, women’s mandatory headscarves are getting ever smaller and pushed ever further back to reveal more and more hair, and that make-up, lipstick and nail polish are ubiquitous.
As for Western music, which, according to Mr. Netanyahu, the Iranian youth is prevented from enjoying, these days it routinely blares from cars stereos, cafes, and restaurants (and is sometimes even performed by women and often with decidedly impious lyrics). It is not that Iranians are somehow desperate to prove Mr. Netanyahu wrong; yet, if wearing jeans and listening to Western pop music are deemed benchmarks of modernity, then no one would find Iran out of step.
These ever-modernizing and increasingly liberal trends served as a backdrop for a three-day visit in October to the Iranian capital by an official, albeit small, delegation from the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D Group), an arm of the European Parliament. The trip marked the first direct contact between the European Parliament and Iran since 2007.
Attempts to organize visits had been made before, but deep mutual distrust and overbidding from both sides made it impossible. In 2010, the Iranians called off a planned trip to Iran by European ministers from the Green bloc. The next year, to the delight of a number of European lobbying groups that oppose any normalization of relations with Iran, a cross-party visit of European MPs was cancelled at the last moment as a result of Iran’s failure to issue visas for the attendees.
In 2012, when the Iranian side showed greater flexibility, it was the Europeans’ turn to play spoiler: just a day before the visit, parliament made the trip conditional on the delegation being allowed to meet with Sakharov Prize (the EU’s highest human rights award) laureates Nasrin Sotoudeh and Jafar Panahi. Outspoken dissidents in Iran, Sotoudeh – a lawyer – was then in prison and Panahi – a filmmaker – was under house arrest. This condition was predictably rejected by the Iranian government. Another scheduled visit this past Spring was similarly postponed.
Against this backdrop, dialogue and diplomacy remained frozen. The efforts of those who promoted constructive engagement on both sides were damaged. Meanwhile, forces beholden to the destructive status-quo in Western-Iranian relations were further emboldened – from undemocratic, exiled Iranian opposition groups, like the Mojahedeen-e Khalk (MEK) and right-wing, pro-Likud organisations claiming to defend the interests of Israel to those in the West content with keeping Iran in the “axis of evil”.
In the face of these odds, with a new Iranian president newly inaugurated and Western relations with the Islamic Republic fraught with uncertainty, it took considerable courage and political foresight for the S&D Group to take the lead in reawakening parliamentary diplomacy with Iran.
True, Western negotiators had consistently met their Iranian counterparts over the country’s nuclear program, but visiting Iran itself and engaging in discussions with a wide range of domestic players was a different sort of undertaking, one that could yield invaluable perspectives on the context for the negotiations.
Diplomacy Strengthens Moderates
Politics in the Islamic Republic is much more complicated than the simplistic power struggle between the “moderate” president Hassan Rouhani and the supposed “real deciders” – Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the hard-line Revolutionary Guards, which some so-called “experts” on Iran propagate. The country’s political sphere involves many more players with complex loyalties and identities. The Majlis (Iranian parliament) is one of these domestic power centers.
Currently, the Majlis is dominated by the “principlist” camp, roughly regarded as loyal followers of the Supreme Leader. Although Khamenei supports Rouhani’s diplomatic outreach to the West, it is not guaranteed, however, that these players, and therefore a majority of the Majlis, would automatically approve any final deal between the negotiating parties. The Majlis‘ role in this regard is critical – it is this body, for example, that would be responsible for ratifying the Additional Protocol to Iran’s Safeguards Agreement with the International Atomic Engery Agency (IAEA), which would be an indispensable part of any final deal between Iran and the P5+1.
In the recent past, the Iranian parliament very much demonstrated its independence from the Supreme Leader when, for example, principlist MPs all but ignored calls from Khamanei to stop infighting within their camp. And this is why inter-parliamentary diplomacy is so important: the interim agreement between Iran and the P5+1 reached on November 23 in Geneva is historic, but it is only a first step toward a comprehensive deal. For any accord to stick, conservatives in the Majlis and their allies in other institutions must be brought on board.
It was, as such, wise during the EU parliamentary trip for Hannes Swoboda, leader of the S&D Group, to present the removal of sanctions against Iran as an important part of the diplomatic effort, in exchange for Iran’s compliance with its commitments to maintaining an exclusively peaceful nuclear program.
This is a fundamental condition for any deal that would be acceptable to the Iranians, whether conservative, moderate, reformist, or progressive.
But the easing of sanctions has generated intense criticism from among some in the European foreign policy establishment who believe these measures s alone account for Iran’s new flexibility at the negotiating table. But as Geneva made clear, getting Iran to the negotiating table is not the same as achieving an actual deal.
It was, instead, a tacit recognition of Iran’s right to enrich uranium within the legal framework of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and a promise of some sanctions relief that made the interim deal possible. This vindicated the position long held by advocates of diplomacy, including Mr. Swoboda.
Far from being an act of “appeasement,” Swoboda’s position, delivered directly to his interlocutors in Tehran, helped to widen the space for diplomacy and undermine the narrative common among Iranian hardliners that the West, namely the United States, is not interested in solving the nuclear standoff, and seeks to overthrow the Islamic Republic.
Addressing Human Rights
Another issue of major concern during the Tehran trip was the human rights situation in Iran. Iranian hardliners have long argued that human rights-related concerns are nothing but a thinly veiled excuse for the West to pursue regime change. And sadly, they are not off-mark when it comes to hardliners in the West who assault Iran’s human rights record in the same breath as they lobby for more crippling sanctions against the country and ignore aggression and abuses by their allies in the region.
It is, however, much more difficult to dismiss human rights concerns when they are raised by those who favour diplomacy and sanctions relief. Their position is strengthened by the fact that most defenders of human rights in Iran agree that dialogue and engagement, not sanctions (except, perhaps, those targeted specifically against individual abusers), are key to improvement in this area.
Renewing communication and rejuvenating dialogue is precisely what the S&D Group delegation achieved in Tehran this past October. Contrary to the notion, popular in neoconservative circles, that talking to the Islamic Republic is tantamount to endorsing its regime, the delegation used its meetings to challenge its Iranian interlocutors on issues such as political prisoners (despite the release of some, including Nasrin Sotoudeh, there are still hundreds), the death penalty (Iran still tops the world on the number of executions per capita), LGBT rights, corporal punishment, torture and continued support for the Assad government in Syria.
The effect of these talks was multiplied by the delegation’s exposure to intense media coverage in Iran. Contrary to the tiresome trope of European conservatives, which depicted the visit as manipulated and exploited by the Iranian media, the news coverage reflected the diversity of the Iranian press.
Reformist and centrist newspapers, such as Shargh, Bahar and Etemaad, were strongly supportive of the visit, seeing it as a vindication of Rouhani’s outreach to the West. Conservatives, for their part, choose to frame the visit as a reward for Iranian steadfastness in the face of Western pressure.
What is clear from all this is that there was no monolithic “Iranian media” narrative, which manipulated the visit in order to advance the government’s agenda, whatever that may have been. In fact, by offering supportive coverage, the reformist outlets actually helped to undermine hardline notions about the West’s implacable hostility to Iran.
The openness to dialogue among both the European delegates and Rouhani administration paid dividends. During the visit, the S&D Group met with representatives of academia and civil society, along with a number of high-level government officials, including former president Hashemi Rafsanjani and parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani, as well as leading academics.
The group also met informally with Jafar Panahi and, according to the delegates themselves “received assurances from the Iranian Judiciary High Council of Human Rights that the next European Parliament delegation will be able to meet officially with both Iranian Sakharov Prize winners.”
The liberalizing winds in Iran, so visible in places like Karim Saee Park or in the new boldness of the media, are primarily products of Iranian society’s internal evolution of Iranian society. They are not yet systemic and irreversible, a painful reminder of which came only a few days after the S&D Group delegation left Tehran and the reformist newspaper Bahar was closed, ostensibly for “insulting the feelings of the believers.”
But outside forces can influence the country’s trajectory, in both positive and negative ways. Dialogue and engagement empower the moderates, while sanctions and isolation spur extremism. As Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian-American Council has written, by undertaking its ground-breaking visit to Tehran, the S&D Group started chipping away at the enmity between the West and Iran, and helped build trust and prepare the ground for more, and broader, exchanges.
As Parsi wrote, “[The] delegation’s trip to Iran deserves high praise and should serve as a model for other nations, including the United States. Failure to understand both Iran and the effect of sanctions on the Iranian people helps to facilitate the continuation of counterproductive, confrontational policies on both sides of the Atlantic.”
He added, addressing the European delegates directly, “As you know, dialogue is the only way to break out of the policy of mutual escalation and distrust, and there are many experts, organizations and individuals who support your pragmatic approach.”
Following the visit, the European delegation itself stated, “For us, this first visit was a fruitful start to a renewed dialogue. We encourage the European Parliament’s Iran delegation to follow up by making their long-scheduled visit to Iran swiftly.”
The positive effects of the visit are already evident. Another, bigger EU parliamentary delegation is scheduled to arrive in Tehran later this week.
In a true dialogue, nobody is left unchanged. It is the only viable way for the West and Iran to resolve their differences on the nuclear issue and help set Iran on a firm path toward reform, moderation and respect for human rights. We need to see much more of it, not less.
The information and views set out in this article are solely those of the author in his personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union or the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats.