Iran elections offer hope of new dialogue

Series Title
Series Details 22/02/96, Volume 2, Number 08
Publication Date 22/02/1996
Content Type

Date: 22/02/1996

By Elizabeth Wise

EVERY year, like clockwork, the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers issue statements condemning the government of Iran. And every year, nothing happens.

But this year, EU officials are slightly more optimistic. Looking ahead to legislative elections in Iran next month, they hope that a new group of moderates may join the nation's parliament and encourage the Islamic administration to ease up on religious persecution.

The 14 February statements mark the day in 1989 when the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against author Salman Rushdie, putting a price on his head. These Valentine's Day messages are the most visible feature of a dispute which has marred EU-Iran relations ever since.

Rushdie's case was a factor which stopped the Union from establishing any links at all with Iran for several years. When Tehran asked for a cooperation agreement with the then-European Community in 1989, it was turned down because of the fatwa, along with Tehran's persecution of religious minorities, its presumed support for terrorists and fears that its scientists were developing a nuclear bomb.

But it was hard to ignore a country which held so much sway in many Soviet republics just as the Soviet Union was breaking up, or to renounce any political influence over a landmass which was such a useful transit point for international arms traffic.

At their summit in Edinburgh in December 1992, EU leaders launched a critical dialogue with Iran which began in June 1993. Comprising a single meeting every six months between high-level diplomats, it has a fairly fixed, four-point agenda - human rights, armaments traffic, terrorism and the Middle East peace process.

But progress has been slow. “So far, there has been little movement on either side,” said a Commission official. “Every year on the fatwa date, we issue a statement. We seek a public assurance from the Iranians that they will not send anyone to attack Mr Rushdie and that they will recognise the sovereignty of our member states.”

The statements do not mention the word terrorism, but in demanding that Iran “abide by international law” the Union is effectively asking Tehran to renounce terrorism.

But if Iran does eventually submit to those demands, it will probably be economic, and not political, pressure that will make it give way. “Everyone is so fed up with economic misery,” said an EU source.

As the arguments used by religious parties for a siege economy and nationalised industry lose sway, Iranians are turning to more moderate voices. The country's first secular political party has just been formed and a new generation of technocratic politicians is growing up.

The Union hopes that their voices will be heard more loudly after the 3 March elections to the Iranian parliament.

“If the parliament becomes more moderate and open, the Iranian government might just find it easier to come around to the EU position,” said an official.

That position, he explained, “is that they would not kill him, they would respect the principle of non-interference and denounce terrorism”.

Meanwhile, the EU is making no effort to help Iran out of its economic stagnation. While supplying enough humanitarian aid through the European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO) to build two hospitals in the last few years and to comfort victims of natural disasters, the Union gives no development assistance to the country, which has its own oil reserves.

Two-way trade amounts to some 32 billion ecu per year, but although the Union is Iran's largest trading partner, Tehran does not benefit from any EU trade concessions. Commercial interests have no role in the EU-Tehran dialogue, say Commission officials. It is strictly political, and only rarely strays from the human rights agenda.

Peace in the Middle East is another sticking point in bilateral relations. According to EU officials, Tehran opposes the peace process and, even more so, any Union involvement in it. EU officials would like to see a softening of Tehran's position.

Iran, for its part, has asked the Union to make some foreign policy changes of its own, calling on EU governments to support Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina with political and even military intervention.

The Iranians have also raised the subject of the Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union - a region of strategic importance to Tehran, and one which may help raise its international status. “They want us to recognise their stabilising influence in the area,” said a Commission official.

Iran, which has acted as a peace broker in conflicts between Armenia and Azerbaijan and between opposing factions in Tadjikistan's civil war, does seem to be winning some political capital there. “They export food and manufactured goods to Central Asia, but they do not export ideology,” said the official admiringly.

Meanwhile, Rushdie, an Indian-born British author, is still in hiding to escape his decreed punishment for alleged blasphemy in his book The Satanic Verses.

Speaking before MEPs in Strasbourg on 14 February, Rushdie asked EU governments to make Tehran clarify whether the seven-year-old fatwa was still in force.

However, it can only be revoked by one of two men, the ayatollahs in Iran and Iraq.

Iranian Foreign Minister Alik Akbar Velayati said this week that the government could not repeal a fatwa, but that it had no intention of having Rushdie killed.

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