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EU: Relations With Iran Heading For A Thaw Despite Human Rights Concerns

A visit by Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi to Brussels yesterday may lead to a breakthrough in the stalled political dialogue between the European Union and Tehran. EU officials say it is likely that a trade accord will soon be negotiated with Iran, despite human rights concerns. Kharrazi's visit also highlights the increasingly high diplomatic profile the EU is adopting in the Middle East.

Brussels, 11 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union and Iran may be close to a breakthrough in their political relations, which have mostly been frozen since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Indications of a possible breakthrough came yesterday in the course of the visit to Brussels by Iran's Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi. It was the first visit to EU headquarters by a top Iranian official since 1997 and the first by an Iranian foreign minister since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Kharrazi met with the EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana; the president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi; as well as other EU representatives. After the talks, it emerged that the EU and Iran are close to starting negotiations on signing a Trade and Cooperation Agreement.

Trade and Cooperation Agreements allow the 15-nation EU to develop closer trade ties with non-member countries, with the possibility of widening cooperation into other fields. Such agreements have been concluded, for example, with Mexico and Mongolia.

The EU has up to now been cool toward developing closer ties with Iran, criticizing Tehran's human rights record and lack of democratic reforms. The EU's stance has softened, however, since President Mohammed Khatami's first election victory in 1997. He won a second four-year term in June.

Yesterday, the EU's external affairs commissioner, Chris Patten, predicted that talks on a trade accord could start as soon as this year. He indicated that persistent human rights concerns do not present an insurmountable obstacle to strengthening relations between the EU and Iran:

"There are some of our agreements [with third countries] which include human rights clauses. I'm not sure whether Trade and Cooperation Agreements customarily do. But certainly, what I explained to the minister [Kharrazi], was that human rights would be a part of our dialogue."

Patten says the EU has serious concerns about the abuse of press freedoms in Iran and the suppression of political opposition, as well as Iran's policy of publicly executing criminals.

Nevertheless, Patten says the EU is keen to deepen and widen what he called "useful dialogue" with Iran in a number of areas. These include energy cooperation -- Iran is a major exporter of oil and gas and is an important transit country -- as well as improvements in trade and investment opportunities. Both sides are also interested in cooperating to combat drug trafficking and in coordinating asylum and immigration policies. Currently, Iran refuses to issue travel documents to its nationals in the EU whose asylum applications have been rejected.

Despite the political freeze, the EU is one of Iran's largest trading partners. In 1999, the EU imported goods from Iran worth more than $4 billion and exported about $3.5 billion. Some 75 percent of imports from Iran consists of oil products, while the EU exports mainly machinery and mechanical appliances as well as other consumer goods.

This is the second time in recent weeks that the EU has seemingly downplayed human rights concerns in order to improve relations with a major regional power. Last week, when Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji visited Brussels, the EU appeared to brush aside differences on human rights in favor of closer political ties.

Iran's Kharrazi yesterday welcomed what he called the EU's "pragmatic approach."

"Through the recent pragmatic approach of the European Union towards Iran, we have been developing very good relations -- comprehensive ones -- that deal with different issues, especially economic cooperation between Iran and the European Union, as well as political cooperation to deal with different crises in our region," Kharrazi said.

Kharrazi attributed human rights disagreements between the EU and Iran to what he called "cultural differences." He said these stem from Iran being an "Islamic democracy," while the West is made up of secular democracies. He said that a non-Western perspective would detect human rights abuses in the West, too, and that human rights issues should not be "politicized."

Kharrazi's visit was condemned by leading Iranian opposition groups as well as by Amnesty International, who believe the EU should link economic ties to improvements in Iran's human rights record.

Kharrazi also welcomed the EU's recently heightened diplomatic profile in the Middle East, saying it is welcomed by Muslim countries. The EU, which has often criticized Israel for its heavy-handed treatment of the Palestinians, has in recent months increased its profile as a peace-broker in the region.

Closer ties with Iran appear to put the EU on a collision course with the United States, which considers Tehran a key sponsor of international terrorism. In July, the EU sharply criticized the decision by the U.S. Congress to extend by five years the "Iran and Libya Sanctions Act," which threatens economic reprisals against foreign companies engaged in trade with either country. The EU rejects U.S. jurisdiction on its firms.