Former Commissioners Karel de Gucht and Louis Michel have criticised European Union moves to strike business deals with Iran, urging EU institutions and member states to make them conditional on Tehran improving its dismal human rights record.
Both politicians played an important role in shaping the EU’s dealings with other countries over the last decade. Michel, father of Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, was European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid between 2004 and 2009. De Gucht was in charge of the trade portfolio between 2010 and 2014.
The call will come as an embarrassment to the current European Commission. In April, the EU responded to the lifting of the economic and financial sanctions linked to Iran’s nuclear programme with a landmark visit to the country of eight Commissioners, led by foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini.
De Gucht and Michel signed a letter urging EU institutions and member states to prioritise progress on human rights over new deals with the regime.
The text, seen by EurActiv.com, stressed that Europe should condition “any further relations with Iran to a clear progress on human rights and a halt to executions”.
The letter said that the rate of executions in the country shows “a horrific image of the planned state killing machine”, as Amnesty International underlined in July 2015.
The letter goes on to cite the country’s close ties with Syrian President Bashar Assad and Hezbollah, still included in the EU’s terrorist list; the criminal repression of ethnic and religious minorities; the marginalisation of women; the lack of guarantees for free and fair elections, and Iran’s bullying attitude toward some European countries.
President Rouhani cancelled a visit to Vienna last April after the Austrian government refused to forbid a peaceful opposition rally during his visit.
“As the Iranian people and the opposition are not allowed to freely express their opinion inside Iran, we should not allow the regime’s repression inside the country to be extended to the European capitals,” the letter said.
The Belgian initiative came against the backdrop of the “new era” in the bilateral relations that EU authorities and the capitals are trying to build with Tehran.
Amid the economic slowdown, political turbulence, tensions with Russia and the high level of terrorist alert, the agreement signed between Iran and the international community to monitor its nuclear programme was one rare piece of good news in 2016.
“We are turning the page”, Mogherini said during the visit last April. “As Europeans, we want the Iranian people to have and to see the benefits of this agreement turning into changes in their everyday lives”, she stressed.
“I’m sure I speak on behalf of all my colleagues in the Commission but I dare to say that I speak on behalf on the 500 million Europeans that are supporting a new era in our relations.”
The visit helped to build the foundations for further cooperation and to bring the badly needed foreign investment to the country in the fields of aviation or energy.
But the ‘reset’ of relations came in spite of the record number of executions and the EU sanctions still imposed on the country due to its poor human right record and links with terrorist organisations.
The UN also highlighted in March the worsening situation in terms of executions and the “fundamental flaws” in the administration of justice.
NGOs and MEPs lamented the secondary role that human right issues played during the EU’s visit to Iran.
It was “a very short visit” of one day with “a very specific purpose”, an EU official told EurActiv at the time.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, representing the six world powers, announced the lifting of “multilateral and national” sanctions in Vienna on 16 January, saying the nuclear deal showed that intense diplomacy could resolve even “the most difficult issues”.
The withdrawal of all nuclear-related economic and financial sanctions against Iran in January followed a green light by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which verified that Tehran had implemented the agreed measures set out in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
The Commissioners' visit in April followed trips to Tehran by various European governments, including Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in mid-April.