Iran's foreign minister, nuclear chief and oil minister have had their EU travel restrictions completely or temporarily lifted
By Saeed Kamali Dehghan, 07.10.2011
The European Union has been criticised for lifting travel bans on three senior Iranian officials after they were promoted. Iran's foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, the nuclear chief, Fereidoun Abbasi-Davani, and the oil minister, Rostam Ghasemi, were all previously subject to EU travel bans but have had their restrictions completely or temporarily lifted. When Salehi, a former head of Iran's atomic energy organisation, was appointed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the country's foreign minister in January, questions were raised about his ability to engage with the international community. But the EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, soon signalled that Salehi's travel ban could be lifted in hope of an agreement with Iran over its nuclear programme. In May, the EU suspended his travel ban to let him carry out his role as an "interlocutor" with other countries. The move came after Germany's gay foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, made an unprecedented visit to Tehran, meeting Ahmadinejad, to secure the release of two German reporters held in Iran for illegally working without a press visa. Few top western diplomats have visited Iran since Ahmadinejad, who is well known for anti-gay comments, took office in 2005. Abbasi-Davani, a nuclear scientist who survived an assassination attempt last November that killed one of his colleagues, was given Salehi's previous job. Abbasi-Davani was allowed to travel to Vienna in September. In August, Rostam Ghasemi, a former commander of the elite Revolutionary Guards, an organisation believed to be responsible for the killings and arrests of protesters in the aftermath of Iran's 2009 elections, took over the presidency of Opec after he became Iran's oil minister. Iran currently holds the presidency of the oil cartel. Ghasemi is expected to appear at an Opec meeting in Vienna in December. Shadi Sadr, a prominent Iranian activist and lawyer based in London who campaigned for travel restrictions for Iranian officials, said the EU decision would "make a mockery of travel bans". "Activists are deeply disappointed by these decisions and think their attempts have been futile," she said. "What is the point of putting individuals on travel ban if they can get away with it with a job promotion?" She added: "For activists, the function of imposing travel bans is to name and shame officials involved in suppressing human rights in Iran. All these three officials are not only involved in Iran's nuclear programme but also serious violation of rights. The travel ban is there to make disruption in their official activities. If not, why is it there?" Barbara Lochbihler, an MEP and the former chair of the Iran delegation at the EU, said the Abbasi-Davani and Ghasemi travel bans had been temporarily lifted so that "both could take part in international meetings in Vienna". The Foreign Office said the three officials were under nuclear sanctions unconnected to human rights. The British foreign secretary, William Hague, met Salehi at the UN in September. The UK has been criticised for not naming the Iranian officials targeted in its new round of travel restrictions. In recent weeks the Iranian media has suggested Ghasemi's name had been taken off the travel ban list but a spokesperson for Ashton rejected the claim and said he would be able to travel only to the Opec meeting. EU regulations say sanctions should not apply "to cases where a state member is bound by an obligation of international law". Activists believe the EU has not been transparent enough about recent decisions over Iran travel bans and say there is a lack of consistency within the EU over decisions. "Some of the EU countries, especially Italy and Germany, have invested in Iran in the past and obviously are reluctant about the bans," said a commentator who asked not to be named. The US is believed to be unhappy about the lifting of bans. "I would have preferred to be informed at an earlier stage, in the same way as the public opinion should be instructed on the exact reasons for such decisions," said Lochbihler. "The EU would make a huge mistake if it decided to isolate Iran completely." Marietje Schaake, an MEP, said: "The comprehensive package of economic sanctions that were imposed by the international community actually fit quite well to the politics of self-isolation the Iranian regime has pursued." The EU might have eased travel restrictions on Iranian officials in order to secure a future visit to Tehran by a group of MEPs, a diplomatic source told the Guardian. Meanwhile, the former managing director of Iran's biggest bank, Mahmoud Reza Khavari, has apparently fled to Canada after being accused of involvement in a $2.6bn financial scam. Sadr said: "He has dual citizenship. Officials related to this regime have found their ways to get past international restrictions. Wealthy officials invest in other countries and get a double citizenship and travel more easily."