The European Parliament resolution passed April 3 triggered fury among Iranian authorities by touching on sensitive subjects such as human rights. The resolution urged the European Union to exploit the current window of opportunity afforded by the nuclear talks, but criticized the Islamic Republic for “human rights violations.” It condemned restrictions on almost every social activity in Iran, including “freedom of information, freedom of association, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, academic freedom, freedom of education and freedom of movement.”
Though Iranian human rights activists are likely to welcome the move, authorities in Tehran were quick to react strongly to the vote. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Marzieh Afkham condemned the resolution as “unfounded and unacceptable.” But more serious criticism came from the conservative camp.
“What weird expectations! What weird claims!” said Tehran's provisional Friday Prayers leader Ayatollah Mohammad-Ali Movahedi Kermani. “In Iran, human rights are not respected?” he asked during his address on Friday, denying that any rights might be violated in the country. The cleric also compared the EU to the United States, accusing both of attempting to spy on Iran. He rejected the parliament’s idea that the EU would open an office in Tehran by the end of 2014, saying, “The people of Iran will not allow another house of spies to be created in the country.” The ayatollah was referring to the US Embassy in Tehran, seized by a group of students following the 1979 revolution.
Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, Mashhad’s Friday Prayer leader, also lashed out after Thursday’s resolution. “In our opinion, the resolution was very good,” he said sarcastically, “and revealed that we will have no understanding with [the Europeans].”
With Europe condemning human rights violations in Iran, skepticism by conservatives toward the West appears to be increasing. Hard-liners might step up their pressure on the moderate Rouhani administration over the ongoing nuclear talks with the West. Alamolhoda, who is among the best-known skeptics of open diplomacy with the United States and Europe, has already begun intimidating pro-Western advocates.
“For those people at universities and [in] certain circles who intended to sanitize Europe and America for the [Iranian] people, it’s now clear that this is simply impossible,” he asserted April 4.
Rouhani already faces a difficult situation at home, with rival groups trying to sabotage his administration’s diplomatic efforts over the past year. Hard-liners argue that the Foreign Ministry is conceding too much in talks with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1). They fear that the EU resolution could shift the focus of talks from the nuclear issue to other areas such as human rights, defense capabilities or foreign policy. They have constantly warned the negotiating team over any shift since last year.
In a recent address to administration employees, Rouhani warned his team members of attempts by “certain people” in the country to distract “us from our main job.” He has vowed to present a comprehensive report on his achievements in foreign diplomacy as soon as negotiations are finalized in the next few months. His remarks are seen as an attempt to silence his critics, whom he had earlier accused of being “semi-literate.”
Despite Iranian authorities’ focus on the human rights part of the resolution, the document also discussed other subjects. It welcomed the interim agreement reached between Iran and the P5+1 in November and considered it “vital that all parties continue to engage constructively in the negotiating process so that the final comprehensive agreement can be concluded within the agreed time frame.” It also urged the EU to “pursue a more independent policy” toward Iran; “facilitate cooperation between European and Iranian research institutes, environmental organizations and cities” and “facilitate dialogue between Iran and members of the Gulf Cooperation Council.”
However, such discussions were all ignored in Tehran, as the country is highly sensitive when it comes to the rights of political prisoners arrested in the protests following the controversial 2009 election. The Islamic Republic had had a tough time curbing that crisis and has since adopted a very conservative attitude toward political rights. Hard-liners, who lost executive power last year, now fear that such statements by the Europeans can destabilize the fragile political atmosphere in the country. This worry is compounded by the popular opposition leaders still remaining under house arrest after more than three years, despite all the efforts of moderate figures to set them free.
Although the Rouhani administration may agree in part with the criticism of the human rights situation in Iran, in the short term, such statements by outsiders could weaken the president’s stance against powerful rival conservatives. But in the long term, the pressure from outside could help him in his efforts to formulate a Charter of Citizens’ Rights, an initiative he promised during his presidential campaign in the hope that it could lead to the freedom of pro-reform prisoners.
But on the other hand, the Western pressure may persuade Iranian conservatives to further distance themselves from the West, not only ideologically and culturally but also trade-wise. The growing skepticism toward the West has already pushed Iran closer to the East, namely Russia. The policy that the government should consider diversifying its world trade partners and look eastward has also been underlined in the “resistance economy” plan outlined by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
In a sign of a tendency toward the East this year, Iran has signed two major contracts with Russia in the absence of Western investors. In March, Moscow reached an agreement with Tehran to build two more nuclear power plants in Iran, reportedly in exchange for thousands of barrels of Iranian oil. In addition, negotiations between Russian and Iranian officials are reportedly in the final stage to make a $20 billion oil deal, which would allow Russia to purchase 500,000 barrels of crude per day from Iran, at a price lower than the eventual market price.
Should European states miscalculate in pressing Iran too much over human rights, they may fail to regain the ground they lost in competition with their historic rival, Russia — which has recently been bitterly at odds with the United States and its allies over the crisis in Ukraine.
Even moderate Iranian Foreign Minister — and top nuclear negotiator — Mohammad Javad Zarif said, “With the conditions set in the recent European Parliament’s resolution, the government will not allow any parliamentary delegation from Europe to travel to Iran.” That means if the Europeans expect closer ties with Tehran they should drew back from their stance and stop insisting on meeting with dissident Iranian activists during their visit. Under these circumstances, it seems highly unlikely that the European Union can persuade the Iranian side to let the EU open an office in Tehran.
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