Eight European Commissioners will make a landmark visit to Iran on 16 April, an announcement which comes on the same week that member states extended a raft of targeted sanctions against the country for its poor human rights record.
The high level delegation will not meet with civil society groups due to a lack of time, but will instead seek to bolster energy and industrial ties with Tehran, a senior EU source said.
The EU delegation, led by foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, will include seven other commissioners: Elżbieta Bieńkowska (Internal Market and Industry), Violeta Bulc (Transport), Miguel Arias Cañete (Climate and Energy), Carlos Moedas (Research and Innovation), Tibor Navracsics (Education, Culture, Youth and Sport), Christos Stylianides (Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management), and Karmenu Vella (Environment and Maritime Affairs).
The withdrawal of blanket economic and financial sanctions linked to Iran’s nuclear programme in January opened a new era in the relations between the Islamic Republic and the international community.
In light of its difficult economic situation, the country has “a huge interest” in engaging on economic issues, a senior EU official said on condition of anonymity. The Iranian government “is interested in a different relation with the world”, the official explained.
In response, the Commission will send senior officials specialising in industry, transport and energy, to forge closer ties with the second largest economy in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) after Saudi Arabia.
Iran’s economy relies mainly on its huge energy resources, ranking second worldwide in natural gas reserves and fourth in oil reserves. The EU does not rule out importing gas from Iran, an EU official said.
Meanwhile, Commissioners also want to promote European companies in promising new markets such as renewal energy.
The EU is also willing to play “a supportive role” on Iran’s intentions to join the World Trade Organization (WTO), officials explained.
But not all sanctions on Iran were lifted. On 11 April member states extended targeted sanctions on Tehran in response to serious human rights violations.
The sanctions prepared by the EU include an asset freeze and visa ban on 82 persons and one entity responsible for “grave human rights violations”, as well as a ban on exports to Iran of equipment which might be used for internal repression and monitoring telecommunications.
On top of this, the EU has other restrictive measures in place in light of Iran’s ties with terrorist groups, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and Houthi rebels, in Yemen.
Last March, a UN report highlighted the worsening situation with regards to the number of executions, including the country’s juvenile death penalty.
“Iran executed at least 966 prisoners in 2015, the highest such rate in over two decades,” the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, Ahmed Shaheed said.
His report also detected “fundamental flaws” in the administration of justice and expressed “serious concerns” in regards to the right to freedom of expression, freedom of association, the right to free and fair elections, women’s rights and the rights of religious and ethnic minorities.
Mr Shaheed, who is subject to a travel ban in Iran, urged the international community to pressure Tehran to meet its human rights obligations.
EU officials insisted that the human rights situation will be brought up during their visit. But none of the eight Commissioners requested any meeting with human rights activists during the trip.
“It is a very short visit” of one day with “a very specific purpose”, an EU official told EurActiv.
The same official said the visit is in line with the more comprehensive dialogue that member states want to forge with Iran during this new period of cooperation. He also played down the economic nature of the trip, saying the EU delegation will also address issues such as nuclear safety or the refugee crisis.
Iran is a transit country for refugees, with three million Afghans living there.
Human rights in the back seat
The backseat role given to human rights issues during the visit was criticised by NGOs and some MEPs.
Amnesty International’s David Nichols stressed that the Commissioners “must use this visit to unequivocally condemn the expansive catalogue of human rights abuses Iran continues to carry out”.
“Shying away from this will not only abandon hundreds of people to be executed in Iran every year, but show how far down the EU’s list of priorities human rights have now fallen,” he added.
The vice-chair of the European Parliament’s delegation for relations with Iran, Germany’s Cornelia Ernst (Die Linke), said that “there is no reason to drop the human rights concern from the visit”.
“Europe can talk about business with the Iranian government and address the human rights situation at the same time,” she commented.
MEPs also expressed their concerns on this issue during the recent visit of Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to the Parliament’s foreign affairs committee last February. Deputies pointed out that at least 2,300 people have been hanged, while bloggers and journalists were being detained since Hassan Rohani was elected in 2013.
Zarif replied that “human rights are not going to be an issue that you beat your opponents with”.