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Iran: EU Predicts A 'Cooling-Off' Period In Relations

EU foreign ministers yesterday condemned Iran's parliamentary elections as undemocratic after more than 2,000 reformist candidates were barred from running by the country's hard-line Guardians Council. EU diplomats say this rules out a quick resumption of trade liberalization talks with Iran. However, there were indications that the EU's "positive engagement" policy toward Iran will continue.

Brussels, 24 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Senior European Union officials say the bloc will adopt a "wait-and-see" attitude to determine if further cooperation with Iran remains possible after 20 February parliamentary elections were widely condemned as seriously flawed.

This means talks on a trade accord, sought by Iran, will remain on ice after having been disrupted in June last year in response to fears that the country is developing nuclear weapons. Similarly, the parallel discussions pursued by the EU to encourage democratic reforms in Iran cannot be resumed.

Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen, who chaired yesterday's EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels, said last night that the elections were undemocratic. "In the conclusions [of the meeting], we express deep regret and disappointment that large numbers of candidates were prevented from standing in the parliamentary elections, thus making a genuine democratic choice by Iranian people impossible," Cowen said. "Ministers stressed the importance the European Union attaches to developing its relations with Iran and recalled that it wishes to support the reform process. We expressed disappointment over the slow progress in the human rights situation in Iran."

Iran's conservative Guardians Council barred more than 2,000 reformist candidates from running, among them dozens of sitting deputies. Although some were reinstated, reformists were unable to field contenders in about half of the constituencies.

"It's too early to say that at this point. You know, we're working with them on some very tricky issues, difficult issues, like the nuclear issue, and we're going to continue with that."
One EU diplomat told RFE/RL that the bloc's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, said a "cooling-off" period is necessary in relations with Iran. Meanwhile, a report on Iran's nuclear program, expected to be delivered by the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Muhammad el-Baradei, is thought to make little difference to this assessment.

However, the foreign ministers of Spain, Ana Palacio, and France, Dominique de Villepin, yesterday strongly suggested the EU must not slam the door on dialogue with Iran. This is seen, among other things, as essential to maintain Iran's observance of its nonproliferation commitments, exacted by Britain, France, and Germany in October last year.

Solana told RFE/RL last night that the EU will have to "wait and see" what positions the country's new parliament adopts. "We will have to see what interlocutors [emerge], how the situation evolves," he said. "It's too early to say that at this point. You know, we're working with them on some very tricky issues, difficult issues, like the nuclear issue, and we're going to continue with that."

Cowen, the Irish foreign minister, also stressed last night the importance of maintaining Iran's engagement with the UN's nuclear watchdog. "We also discussed the state of play regarding the nuclear program. Ministers encouraged Iran to continue its positive engagement with the IAEA and the suspension of its enrichment activities," he said. "We will continue those discussions in the light [of] IAEA Director-General el-Baradei's upcoming report and the meeting of the IAEA board of governors."

However, EU diplomats have said they expect el-Baradei's report to be bleaker than his previous assessments. A number of issues relating to Iran's program of uranium enrichment are thought to remain unresolved.

Iran has also displayed little readiness to make progress on other remaining key EU concerns besides the nuclear issue. The human rights situation is said not to have improved since last autumn, and Iran is seen as continuing to support terrorist organizations outlawed by the EU.