The recent debacle over a trip by Members of the European Parliament to Iran, whether they should go or not go, and the visit’s last minute cancellation, has implications for whether the EU is serious about confronting the abysmal human rights situation in the country.
For those interested in Iran and its relations with the West, news over the last week has been very confusing and contradictory. For once, the confusion has resulted not from the usual hot air emanating from Tehran but rather from shenanigans on display in Brussels.
What was supposed to be a parliamentary exchange between the European Parliament and the Iranian Majlis (admittedly never an easy undertaking under any circumstances), quickly turned into an obstacle course of objections raised from inside and outside parliament to stop the EU delegation from travelling to Iran.
Particularly striking about the event was how hysterical many became once it was clear the Iranians were going to allow the trip to proceed. Opponents inside parliament concocted their own plans to derail the trip instead. Human rights were among the primary issues invoked to thwart the delegation visit, begging the question – how are human rights violations in Iran supposed to be addressed and what, besides condemning the Iranian state from afar, is the long term thinking on achieving human rights compliance in Iran?
The Forgotten Trade of Diplomacy
The last time an EU parliamentary delegation travelled to Iran was in 2007. Since then, follow up trips have been planned but have never materialized. Resistance to these trips has been predictable – in fact, the only sure response is that it’s never a good time to visit Tehran. Because of their politics and now increasingly because of our politics, (semi-) official trips to Iran have consistently been a sensitive topic.
The question remains, however, whether anyone remembers what diplomacy is meant for in the first place, i.e. that it is primarily a language, a tool of communications to be utilised not just under ideal circumstances, but most importantly when the interlocutor is an adversary.
The European Parliament is, in fact, particularly well positioned to diplomatically engage Tehran on a variety of issues, especially human rights. As an institution with little executive power in EU foreign policy, the parliament has the ability to explore foreign policy issues without reflecting official EU foreign policy. Parliament can, therefore interact with, and get to know, an adversary without too much political cost.
These exchanges can also be used to convey criticism more effectively and to resolve various issues of contention, such as human rights, an area of great concern and priority for the EU and one where Iran consistently fails. Such exchanges are part of a long, and at times frustrating and tedious, game of diplomacy where the objective is strategic and not one of self-satisfactory, short-term gains.
Condemning and admonishing a country’s leadership from afar has seldom yielded any tangible results for those championing human rights inside another nation.
A Re-occurring Failure
In November 2011, members of the European Parliament attempted to visit Iran. Tehran, however, refused to issue visas and the trip ended in failure. This year a delegation from the Iranian Majlis was slated to visit Brussels, another failed effort due to politicking in Tehran in the wake of the country’s parliamentary elections in March 2012.
The Europeans initiated a new attempt to visit Iran in early summer 2012, this time under the shadow of the harshest EU sanctions ever levelled against a country.
Both before and after a final decision on the trip was made on October 18, a number of voices from inside and outside parliament, including within the delegation itself, rose up in opposition to the trip. Two US Senate Democrats were among the vocal opposition, warning against the visit in a letter to Parliament President Martin Schulz on October 16th.
Within parliament, the European Conservatives & Reformists group (ECR) represented the strongest opposition to the trip. The ECR considers Iran to be a geopolitical pariah and believes it should be treated accordingly. On the group’s initiative, the delegation trip was brought before the Conference of Presidents on October 18th.
The Conference of Presidents is responsible for vetting and passing travel authorization for parliamentary delegations. While authorization is usually given without much fuss, the vote on the Iran delegation was fraught with conflict.
At the October 18th meeting, the ECR cast its ballot against the trip while the largest conservative group, the EPP (European People’s Party), and the liberal ALDE group (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe) abstained. The Social Democrats, Greens and United Left voted in favor of the trip, giving majority support to the Iran delegation.
Subsequently, the EPP decided not participate in the trip and aligned its position with that of EU High Representative, Catherine Ashton. EPP member Elmar Brok, MEP and Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, made the following statement on October 22nd:
“We ask for the postponement of the meeting until the High Representative, Catherine Ashton, gives us the green light to go on with it, given the ongoing negotiations she is involved with in Iran. The European Parliament should not damage the EU position and become an instrument of Iranian propaganda.”
On October 23rd, a one-hour meeting held in camera took place in Strasbourg with an enlarged Foreign Affairs Committee. Scheduled to speak on Iran was Helga Schmidt, who is responsible for the Iranian nuclear file at the EU’s External Action Service. One can only guess that Schmidt’s position jived well with that of the EPP, namely, that the timing of the trip was bad and that the Iranians would twist the visit to their advantage.
This notwithstanding the delegation continued its efforts to proceed with the visit. More signs of trouble emerged when some within parliament began to suggest that a final decision on the delegation’s fate should turn on who would be awarded the Sakharov prize for Freedom of Thought, an award given to prominent defenders of human rights and freedom of thought. Heroic Iranian human rights lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, and film director, Jafar Panahi, were among the favourites to win the prize. The announcement of prize winners was scheduled to take place the day before the delegation trip.
During this period, frenzied lobbying to stop the trip increased both inside and outside parliament. A number of delegation members backed out of the group, such as Social Democrat MEP Kathleen Van Brempt who cited the trip’s sensitive timing. Allies of the exiled Iranian dissident group the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK), such as parliamentary Vice President Alejo Vidal-Quadras and Struan Stevenson, MEP, publically attacked the planned trip and invoked terms such as ‘appeasement’ and ‘propaganda’ in an effort to discourage their colleagues from moving ahead with the project.
On October 26, the day before the trip, the ECR forced yet another discussion on the matter. At this meeting, a decision was made to award the Sakharov prize to Sotoudeh and Panahi. In response, ALDE suggested that the trip could proceed only if, before departing, the delegation obtained assurances from the Iranians that it would be allowed to meet with the awardees (Sotoudeh is serving a 11 year prison sentence in Iran’s notorious Evin prison for her human rights work).
The ALDE proposal radically changed the entire set-up of the trip. The final decision was that the delegation could travel to Iran, but if it was refused a meeting with the awardees, it had to immediately return to Europe.
In sum, the delegation chair was tasked with the impossible mission of wresting permission from Iranian authorities to meet the awardees a mere twenty-four hours before the planned trip to Tehran. The condition was, in effect, a trap using human rights as a pre-text to sabotage the visit in the knowledge that the Iranians would reject the unrealistic demand. Of course, that is exactly what happened. Tehran refused to countenance the meetings on such short notice and the delegation was forced to cancel its visit.
For the global community, there are two primary approaches to Iran. On the one hand, some believe the global community should unite against Iran to speed up its supposedly imminent bankruptcy. On the other hand, other believe it is vital to keep channels to Tehran open, to understand the Iranian interlocutors and their interests, and to discuss all existing issues with them, above and beyond the nuclear impasse.
This divide exists within the European Parliament as well. Some who feel strongly about human rights, for instance, have adopted an uncompromising stance and view any news of Iran’s faltering economy as vindication of the sanctions track and hope that this policy will ultimately lead to the collapse of the Islamic Republic.
This whole circus begs the question- how did this last-minute ultimatum to the Iran delegation in any way help improve Sotoudeh or Panahi’s situation, or generally ameliorate the human rights environment inside Iran? If there was real concern for Sotoudeh or Panahi, why wasn’t the demand to meet with them raised earlier? Why was this condition raised only after all other efforts to sabotage the trip had failed, and then as an ultimatum?
The Iranian government’s human rights abuses are unacceptable. Time and time again, it has used its own people as pawns in a larger geopolitical game with the West. The EU has, however, shown itself to be no different from the Iranian government. To some in the EU, Sotoudeh and Panahi are also pawns used to advance the EU’s policy of isolating Iran with no regard whatsoever to the human rights of the Iranian people or the very principles the EU itself ostensibly claims to uphold.
Ironically, while this political game was being played in Brussels, a small group of parliamentarians from the German Bundestag were also planning a trip to Tehran. They too received criticism, but have reportedly now arrived in Tehran. They will hopefully manage to take a small step toward achieving what parliamentary exchanges such as these are for – discussing sensitive issues, admonishing as well as listening, and undertaking the difficult but necessary task of substantial dialogue with those with whom disagreements exist.
*The authors of this piece have chosen to remain anonymous.