Prague, 10 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Iran and the European Union are about to open the first round of a high-level dialogue which will cover issues ranging from nuclear arms proliferation and human rights, to increased economic cooperation and the Mideast peace process.
At a meeting in Luxembourg this week (June 8 and 9) EU foreign ministers agreed that the EU wants a comprehensive and substantive dialogue with Iran in a spirit of increased international cooperation.
The exact date for the start of the dialogue is not yet set. But its hoped that a meeting will take place before the end of this month, in Iran, attended by high-level foreign affairs technocrats from both sides. It follows a successful preparatory meeting of lower-level officials in Brussels on May 19, which set an agenda for the talks.
The dialogue is the culmination of a gradual thaw in EU-Iranian relations over almost a year. It is getting underway at a moment of high tension in Iran between moderates, grouped around President Mohammad Khatami, and conservatives, centered on the Islamic clergy under spiritual leader Ayataollah Ali Khamenei. The mayor of Teheran, Gholamhussein Karbaschi, is being tried on charges of large-scale embezzlement -- charges which is supporters claim are politically inspired. Kharmaschi is often considered as the central figure of the moderate movement in Iran, and his downfall -- which now seems increasingly likely -- would be a major blow to the country's liberal elements.
The EU is aware of the delicacy of the moment, but its view is that the dialogue cannot be held in check by any single incident. It's approach to contacts with Iran differ markedly from those of the United States, which has sought to isolate Iran and has applied economic sanctions on the grounds that it supports international terrorism and is trying to develop weapons of mass destruction.
Critics of the EU line say that the prime motivation of the European countries towards Teheran is to develop lucrative business contacts, particularly in Iran's energy sector. And some of those critics note that Khatami, even if a moderate, remains within the fold of the Islamic revolution, and they doubt his committment to real change on key issues.
For their part, EU officials agree that economic gain for Europe is a powerful attraction. But they say that a policy of dialogue also provides the opportunity to offer support for Khatami's stated aims of moderation and modernization in Iran. They say Khatami must be given something to show for his efforts, to leave him empty handed only weakens his position against the conservatives. That's why the coming dialogue will contain discussion of economic cooperation of advantage to Iran.
Khatami's prospects for survival are closely linked with his efforts to revive the country's moribund economy, which has been hard-hit by the steep decline in world oil prices. Unemployment is high and rising among younger people, the segment of the population which has given particular support to Khatami. The president has little maneuvering room, and there are already signs of disappointment among his supporters. One Iranian newspaper (Iran Daily) recently said of Khatami that good intentions don't put food on the table.
The EU feels that dialogue rather than stand-off is also useful on arms issues. It's known that Iran has close scientific contacts and interchanges with Pakistan, which recently conducted a series of nuclear tests. Few can doubt that Iran is well positioned to obtain information about what has been labeled the "Islamic bomb." This week an Iranian newspaper (Kar-va-Kargar) came out openly and said that Iran's need for the Islamic bomb is "quite clear".
The EU line, with a glance sideways at countries like Iran, is that Pakistan must be made to feel the economic consequences of its nuclear actions.
Of course, some of the constraints on the EU's approach towards Iran relate to public opinion in Europe. Many Britons for instance remain offended with Iran for its continued death threat against British author Salman Rushdie. Germans are angry over the Iranian death sentence against a German businessman who had relations with a Muslim woman.
For reasons like that, EU officials say, relations with Iran will advance only slowly.