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EU: Brussels Remains Keen To Build Closer Relations With Iran

The European Union's enthusiasm for developing closer ties with Tehran appears undampened, despite a high-ranking Iranian official last week rejecting EU demands that developing trade links be conditional on political reforms and the country's full cooperation in the fight against terrorism. EU officials told RFE/RL that the bloc is keen to support reformist forces in Iran, including the present government, and that they assume Tehran will reciprocate by meeting the EU's political terms.

Brussels, 19 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union is dismissing fears that Iran's reluctance to meet the EU's political demands could jeopardize the country's trade talks with the bloc later this autumn.

Gunnar Wiegand, the European Commission's external-affairs spokesman, told RFE/RL that the EU's dialogue with Iran is "very good," although some Iranian officials have been quoted as saying they reject any "preconditions" by the European Union to the expansion of trade.

Wiegand said the EU believes Iran will not act on the threat. "We know that the democratically elected government of Iran is very eager in the best interests of its people to enter into negotiations and to conclude soon such an agreement with the EU," Wiegand said.

Wiegand indicated the EU believes Iran's tough stance is motivated by domestic political considerations.

Glyn Ford, a member of the European Parliament and its rapporteur for Iran, told RFE/RL today that the EU has set no preconditions for closer trade links with Iran. "We're in a negotiating process. Nothing has been laid down in terms of things that have to happen, apart from the fact that we want to negotiate in parallel some agreements, a trade protocol with Iran, and at the same time we want to negotiate some agreements on issues such as human rights. But we haven't said that you'll have to agree to 'X, Y, or Z' before we're prepared to sign a trade protocol," Ford said.

While Ford rejected the term "preconditions," he did admit that at least some EU institutions will be keeping an eye on the progress of political talks in Tehran before they approve closer trade links between the EU and Iran. "I would imagine that certainly the [European] Parliament and probably the [European] Commission, in the absence of any agreement of some of the other issues outside trade, would not agree to a trade protocol," Ford said.

The Trade and Cooperation Agreement that the EU hopes to start negotiating with Iran in October will need the approval of the European Parliament before it can come into effect.

The European Commission has made clear what it feels is the importance of such an agreement for Iran. A commission background document on EU relations with Iran notes that the EU is the country's biggest trading partner. It says the EU has in recent years had a negative trade balance with Iran, i.e., it has imported more than it has exported. In 2000, EU imports from Iran totaled 8.4 billion euros ($8.2 million), whereas the value of EU exports to Iran amounted to 5.2 billion euros. More than 80 percent of the EU's Iranian imports consist of oil and petrochemical products.

The commission says a full trade agreement would greatly improve trade, business, and investment conditions, as well as contribute to Iran's efforts in economic liberalization and deregulation.

Ford, who visited Iran in July, said the EU's main problem in its talks with Tehran is the presence of what he calls "two contrary state structures" within Iran. Beside the largely reformist government headed by President Mohammad Khatami, Iran's Constitution gives extensive veto rights to the unelected Council of Guardians, which represents the country's Muslim clergy. These veto rights, Ford noted, directly affect the government's ability to pass legislation to free the press and improve human rights. Similarly, the Council of Guardians has vetoed a number of attempts by the government to liberalize Iran's economy.

Ford said relations with Iran are an important part of the EU's evolving common foreign policy. He said the EU's belief in negotiations -- described by some as "positive engagement" -- is distinct from the approach adopted by the United States. "We're starting to see the first indications of the emergence of a European common foreign and security policy. We're actually seeing that the EU is taking a distinct and European-wide stance on issues like Iran, North Korea, on [the] Kyoto [climate-change agreement], the UN convention against racism, biological-weapons convention, etc. So we're seeing the emergence of a policy that is not sharply dissimilar from that of the United States. But we're seeing firstly the emergence of a common policy and one that reflects European interests rather than trans-Atlantic interests," Ford said.

Ford said the EU and the United States are "aiming at the same thing, but approaching it in different ways." He said both want to see improvement in countries like Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, but that the EU believes there are already positive changes afoot in Iran and North Korea that should be supported.

In Iran's case, Ford said, trade negotiations are a key part of the EU's incentive strategy.