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European Parliament's Controversial October Trip to Iran

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Once again, the European Parliament is planning to send a delegation to Tehran. The trip, scheduled for the end of this month, was confirmed by the parliament's Delegation for Relations with Iran just before summer.

Described as a "bridge building exercise", the seven-day trip is to set off on Saturday 27 October and could include up to 14 members of the European Parliament according to the minutes of the Delegations' July meeting made available on parliament's website only last month. Iranian officials also confirmed that the October visit is on their agenda.

Although the Delegation has made repeated attempts to visit Iran in recent years, no such visits has materialised during the current parliamentary term.

The first attempt in 2009 failed due to the "unfavourable political climate" created by the fraudulent presidential elections hijacked by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

In September 2010, the parliament authorised a delegation to Tehran, conditioned partly on lifting the death penalty on an Iranian woman sentenced to death by stoning for alleged adultery. That condition was not met and the proposed delegation therefore did not travel.

The Delegation made a third attempt In October 2011 but was faced with public outrage which prompted cancellation of the tripat the last minute.

Several people were hanged in public during the last trip by a European parliamentary delegation to Iran in 2007. The trip was hailed by the Iranian media.

The idea to have a European delegation designated for relations with Iran first emerged in 2004 when the Iranian embassy worked hard to establish a formal liaison with the European Parliament. The Iran lobby within the EU justified this as an instrument to boost the so called moderate president Mohammad Khatami. Ironically enough, the delegation was established only after the hardline Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office in 2005 and therefore could hardly serve its purpose. Nevertheless, the rapprochement only intensified and delegations from both sides started to exchange inter-parliamentary visits.

European Parliament's principles for governing delegation activities specify that a delegation should "contribute to promoting in third countries the values on which the European Union is founded, namely the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms."

The record of the past few years suggests the opposite in the case of Iran.

The latest Year Report by Amnesty International, counts 634 executions carried out in Iran during 2011. That puts Iran to world's number one executioner state, per capita. The number of public executions in Iran quadrupled compared to the previous year.

Another report by Amnesty International says at least 143 children were on death row in Iranian prisons, waiting to go to the gallows when they reach 18.

Iran's strictly controlled electoral system allows only the highly loyal to run for a seat in the Majlis, the Iranian parliament where the Delegation is planning to visit. Nearly a third of Majlis' current members are ex-commanders of the notorious Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and were allegedly involved in human rights abuses.

Canada cut diplomatic relations with Iran last month and kicked out Iranian diplomats, citing Iran's human rights abuses and calling the country "the most significant threat to global peace and security in the world today."

Meanwhile, in a surprising move in the opposite direction, the European Parliament adopted a resolution, proposed by its powerful German Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Elmar Brok, calling on EU to open an office in Tehran.

Germany, the most significant European trade partner with Iran, seems to have a say in this. Until last year, the EP-Iran Delegation had always been chaired by a German Green Euro MP. Some reports suggest that the coordination with the Iranian embassy is still done by a German Green adviser. According to The Economist World in Figures 2012 edition, Germany is world's number three, after UAE and China, in exports to Iran.

Iran has never allowed independent bodies to look into its human rights record. In March 2011, former Maldivian foreign minister Ahmed Shaheed was assigned by the UN Human Rights Council as its Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran. Despite repeated requests, he never received a visa to Iran. This is quite contrary to the attitude of the Iranian authorities inviting the European Parliament delegation this month.

Critics often maintain, whatever good intentions this people may have, such trips would give credit to that theocracy.

"Name one objective that has been achieved from all these trips and negotiations with Iran," asks Sohrab Saidi, Iranian exile in Cologne. "Has there been any progress on human rights? Have they halted their nuclear weapons programme or backed down from exporting terrorism to the region?"

Iran's increasing isolation has left it with few allies like Iraq and Syria whose current leaders seem fully dependent on Iran for their survival. An EU trip could therefore seriously boost Iranian leaders' moral and serve their domestic propaganda, critics say.

"The mullahs couldn't expect a better gift than this publicity with such a visit," says London-based human rights activist Leila Azari, who lost one relative in Iran during the 2009 uprising. "At a time when the international community needs to punish them for their cruelty, some seem to be only keen on doing business," she said.

Others are even more troubled.

"I can't believe they do it at this time when we suffer so much from Iranian interference," says Hassan Addaher, coordinator for the Syrian opposition movement in Brussels. "We will not forget those who supported the bloodthirsty mullahs who kill our people."

Two weeks ahead of the trip, the final say is in the hands of "the Conference of Presidents" - parliament's authoritative body - composed of President Martin Schulz and leaders of the political groups.