WASHINGTON -- On her recent two-day trip to Iran, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton met with human rights defenders, including the mother of a blogger who died in prison in 2012.
The meeting has infuriated Iranian hard-liners, who harshly criticized Ashton.
Media outlets close to the government reported that a protest by "students" would be held on March 12 in front of the Austrian Embassy in Tehran, where Ashton’s meeting with the activists took place.
Among those protesting Ashton’s action are lawmakers, at least one senior military commander, and conservative media close to the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
They say the meeting between Ashton and a number of "seditionists" was clear interference in Iran's internal affairs. Sedition is a term used in Iran to describe the actions of demonstrators at antigovernment protests in 2009 that shook the Islamic establishment.
"The parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee strongly calls on the government to prevent these intolerable and interventionist actions by foreign delegations that travel to our country," said a statement signed by lawmakers on March 11.
Iran's Foreign Ministry has said it sent an "official caution" to the Austrian Embassy for arranging the meeting.
The Fars news agency, which is close to the IRGC, said Ashton's "suspicious" meeting with women's rights activists made it clear that the main purpose of her trip to Iran was to launch "human rights interference" in the Islamic republic.
Brigadier-General Masoud Jazayeri, the deputy joint chief of staff of Iran's armed forces, said Ashton’s meeting was a violation of diplomatic principles and a prelude to more "interference."
Jazayeri said such meetings should be prevented while adding that "Ashton should instead think of resolving women's rights issues in Europe."
The hard-line daily "Javan" was also critical of the meeting. But it went even one step further than other media outlets.
The daily removed Gohar Eshghi, the mother of blogger and Facebook activist Sattar Beheshti , from a picture
where she was seen with Ashton and well-known rights defender Narguess Mohammadi, who served time in prison on charges of acting against national security.
The original picture with Eshghi had been widely shared on social media and Iranian newssites outside the country before it was altered by "Javan."
Beheshti died in prison after being arrested by Iran's Cyber Police. He was allegedly beaten during his interrogations.
The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran (ICHRI) reported that a Tehran court ruled last year that Beheshti's death was a "quasi-murder."
His death in custody was embarrassing to Iran's leaders and his mother became a thorn in their side due to her repeated protests against the court ruling and the death of her son in custody.
Ashton met with the activists shortly after arriving in the Iranian capital on March 8, which was International Women's Day.
"Not surprisingly, there was a big focus on human rights," Ashton said the following day. "I met with women activists on International Women's Day and talked to them about the situation that women [in Iran] find themselves in."
Ashton had traveled to Iran to discuss the country's controversial nuclear program, the interim deal reached in November between Tehran and six world powers to curb that program, and ties between Iran and the EU.
ICHRI spokesman Hadi Ghaemi says hard-liners in Iran are angry that Ashton included human rights on her agenda while visiting Tehran.
"Hard-liners in Iran are under the illusion that the government of [President Hassan] Rohani should only pursue nuclear negotiations with the West without paying any attention to international human rights concerns," Ghaemi says. "But given the serious state of human rights in Iran, Western countries should not ignore violations and Ashton's visit demonstrated that Europe wants to have these issues on the table."
A meeting in December between members of a European parliamentary delegation and two prominent dissidents in Tehran was also sharply criticized by hard-liners.