Speaking in Brussels yesterday, Patten said Iran's lack of progress on a number of issues was one of the "biggest regrets" of his five years as commissioner.
Patten said the EU has long recognized Iran's great potential.
"Iran is a hugely important country regionally, and I think globally," he said. "[It is] the greatest pre-Islamic civilization in the region, a country with an exciting culture, a country terribly young -- 600,000 or 700,000 youngsters coming onto the job market every year. [It is] a country where, in my view, demography is unshakably on the same side as democracy."
But, he said, although the EU has tried very hard to bring Iran "out of the cold" and give it a larger -- and more "responsible" -- international role, Tehran has chosen to spurn the offer.
Patten said the EU has established what he called an "umbilical relationship" between trade concessions on the EU side, and social and political reforms -- and guarantees that nuclear power will be limited to civil purposes -- on the Iranian side.
Iran, he noted, has failed to honor its end of the bargain: "I'm sorry that that policy has gone backwards. As [a member of the European Parliament pointed out earlier], we've seen reverses, deeply concerning reverses in the human rights area. There have been one or two things that have gotten better -- for instance, the acceptance from time to time of visits by UN rapporteurs. But by and large, I'm pretty depressed by the lack of progress. And, of course, it doesn't make it easier that now, when we try to discuss human rights issues with Iranian officials, we have issues like Abu Ghurayb [prison abuse] shoved in our faces."
Patten went on to observe that pictures of U.S. troops abusing Iraqi prisoners had done considerable damage to the EU ideal of global human liberties.
Patten then asked rhetorically: "What should we [the West] do?"
Iran's deteriorating human rights record and other tensions with international law notwithstanding, Patten argued for continued engagement. Again, he made a barbed reference to the present U.S. administration.
"Do we simply walk away? Do we -- as one or two American spokesmen have suggested recently -- seek to isolate Iran and hope that sooner or later the Iranians will come to their senses? Well, that may give some people a warm glow, particularly during an election campaign," Patten said. "But I'm not sure that it can masquerade as a long-term policy."
Patten's indicated the EU is still offering Iran the same bargain as two years ago, when the twin-track dialogue on trade and political issues started: "I think that we do have to say to the Iranians that if they can satisfy the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] on nuclear issues, we are prepared to try to involve them to a greater extent internationally."
Patten said he hopes the United States can be brought to agree with the EU view, too.
Patten summarized his thoughts on Iran, saying that in the end, he believes that progress in the right direction is "inevitable."