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Iran: EU Gets Cool Reception In Tehran For Dialogue Proposals

The European Union's foreign-policy chief, Javier Solana, has urged Iran to address several key European concerns if it wants to develop political and economic relations to their full potential. These concerns include worries that Tehran may be seeking to develop weapons of mass destruction and charges that it supports militant Palestinian groups. But will Tehran hear Solana's pleas for a meaningful dialogue even as both sides push ahead with trade relations?

Prague, 30 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- As the European Union seeks to link a dialogue about human rights and other issues to its growing trade links with Iran, the hardest thing to know is how much those with power in Tehran are listening.

Javier Solana, the EU's foreign-policy chief, made the EU's latest attempt to link trade with talk about issues of Western concern as he visited Tehran yesterday. He told a joint news conference with Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi that, "EU-Iran relations can never reach their full potential if we do not eliminate problems that hamper such a positive development."

He then went on to cite Iran's alleged acquisition of weapons of mass destruction and concerns that Iran is providing arms to militant Palestinian groups combating Israel, a state Iran does not recognize.

After the call, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami acknowledged Solana's concerns by saying Iran is committed to defending what he called Islamic democracy as it pursues civil rights and scientific progress. But he made no reference to Solana's specific points about the Middle East or Iran's nuclear-power program.

To many observers, the president's vague response appeared to leave matters at the end of Solana's visit pretty much as they were when it began. The EU official's visit provided an opportunity for another call for dialogue but produced no commitments to begin one soon. At the same time, nothing was said in public to suggest that the growth of trade between the two sides would slow due to their lack of progress in discussing other issues.

Political experts say there are several reasons why the EU seems to have been unable so far to get the interest it seeks in Tehran for non-trade-related discussions.

Farah Karimi closely follows EU-Iran relations as a member of the Dutch parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee. She said the EU has been stymied in talks with Iran by the country's complicated political system in which most power is held not by the popularly elected government but by officials appointed by the supreme leader. "This is the big problem in the EU-Iranian relationship, or in the relationships between the Western countries and Iran, that they can talk only to the government, because these are intergovernment talks. But the Iranian government is really something like an opposition in Iran, and that makes for a very complicated situation," Karimi said.

The EU's limitation of being able to argue its case only to the government, which includes reformists, has been complicated by the hostility of the conservative establishment to anything it regards as foreign interference in Iran's affairs. The conservative establishment controls the judiciary and security forces, giving it the power to arrest anyone it regards as a foreign agent -- a charge sometimes brought against those who criticize the regime too directly.

Shahram Chubin, a regional expert at the Geneva Center for Security Policy, said the conservative establishment does not believe it has to meet the EU's calls for dialogue in order to have strong trade relations with Europe. He said the establishment also rejects any EU attempts to form a solid front with the U.S. in expressing concerns over Iranian weapons-of-mass-destruction programs or support of terrorist groups. On such subjects, he said, the establishment turns as deaf an ear to the Europeans as the Americans. "The Iranians believe that they can divide the EU and the U.S. They don't see them as a common element. They think that they can open normal relations with the EU without meeting the conditions that the U.S. seeks to impose on them. Whereas the EU is trying really, in a way, to say that we and the United States are as one: We are working for similar, or identical goals. But neither policy, neither the engagement policy nor the containment policy of the U.S., has yielded results," Chubin said.

But if the EU's engagement policy has had a rocky time in Iran, European analysts say that it could still ultimately help to launch the debates in Iran the West wants to see. The EU is seeking to help foster a debate by underlining Western support for reformist elements in the society that want to change the Islamic Republic from within the establishment, including the executive branch and legislature.

Chubin said that until now, the conservative establishment has suppressed debate over Iran's Mideast policy or its nuclear programs because it sees that debate as driven by foreign interests hostile to it. The analyst said that if the debate can be couched in terms of Iran's own national interests, it could interest even some pragmatic conservatives. "Where there is room for debate within Iran -- even among the conservatives -- is: 'Yes, we should support the Palestinians in their desire to create an independent state, but what should the nature of that support be? Can it be a diplomatic support or an economic support? Does it have to be a military support?' So, the debate within Iran, once it gets into details, is very open but the tendency has been to prevent the debate [of an issue] by simply invoking [the issue] as a principle of the [Islamic] Revolution," Chubin said.

Chubin said there also could be a constructive debate over nuclear power if it focused not on weapons of mass destruction but on economic priorities. "Is this nuclear-power program an intelligent use of the country's limited resources? Will it work? Is it safe? What are the alternatives to it? At that level, the debate hasn't started in Iran. It's very much something that intelligent Iranians, and well-meaning Iranians, want to do, but they have not been able to wrest this issue away from the discussion that the U.S. is trying to deny us technology that would make us independent," Chubin said.

As the EU has urged Iran into what it calls a "constructive dialogue" on social and foreign-policy issues, European leaders have distanced themselves from Washington's declaration early this year that Iran is part of an "axis of evil," and have called for continuing to develop trade ties with Tehran. Since then, tensions between the U.S. and Iran have risen, with Iranian leaders in recent weeks warning Washington not to think of including Iran as a future target in its war on terrorism.