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European Parliament's Surprise Visit to Tehran in 10 Days

21/04/2013 16:11 BST | Updated 19/06/2013 10:12 BST

An official delegation from the European Parliament is planning to visit Tehran in a few days. The Parliament's Conference of Presidents on Thursday in Strasbourg approved the controversial proposal. The delegation plans to leave around 28 April.

The Parliament's Delegation for relations with Iran, which was set up in 2005 with the aim of improving contacts with the Iranian Majlis or parliament, has repeatedly sought to organise trips to Iran. None of those attempts have been successful in the current parliamentary term, due to international protests and "unfavourable political climate."

Last time the delegation tried to organise such a trip in October last year, there was a public outrage and protests from human rights activists as well as various political groups inside the European Parliament which led to some pre-conditions to be included before the trip; mainly to visit Sakharov Prize Winners Nasrin Soutoudeh and Jafar Panahi who were imprisoned in Iran.

That trip was cancelled only hours before the delegation was departing from the airport, when the Iranian authorities announced they could not guarantee those conditions would be met.

Similarly an attempt in the previous year was stopped when Iran refused to revoke the death sentencing by stoning of the 42-year-old Sakineh Ashtiani.

This time, the parliament's "Iran Delegation", which is in the hands of European Parliament's Greens group, decided to remove all preconditions and keep the arrangement off the public radar in order to avoid any reactions that would disrupt the trip.

Joseph Daul, president of the centre-right EPP group, the biggest political block in the European Parliament, together with the leader of the Conservative ECR group Martin Callanan, opposed the idea of a trip in the last "Conference of Presidents" - meeting of the leaders of European Parliament's political groups. But they could not halt the trip as Guy Verhofstadt, former Belgian prime minister and now leader of the Liberals group in the European Parliament who holds the critical "swing vote" between the left and right blocks, voted in favour of the Iran visit.

The delegates will be composed of Iran Delegation Chair Tarja Cronberg and Vice-Chair Cornelia Ernst and possibly another member.

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. Therefore critics maintain such visits would only give unmerited international credit to the ruling theocracy.

According to Amnesty International, Iran maintains the highest number of executions in the world, per capita.

EU has also enforced sanctions on Iran, described as the toughest EU sanctions imposed against any other country. Earlier this month, EU announced that the latest round of nuclear talks with Iran had failed again with no clear prospects.

So the unexpected change of course by EU's parliament is seen by some as a desperate final attempt to appease the shaking Iranian authorities. "No explanation has been given to what possibly could have initiated this trip except for Iran's interest for domestic propaganda in the run up to the June presidential elections," said Hamid Khansari a human rights activist in Brussels.

"No matter how aggressive and arrogant this regime is and no matter how many innocent people that are killed every day, some seem only interested in trade and business."

Whether Mr Verhofstadt would maintain his position during the coming week, would be decisive for the trip to go ahead.