A Persian version of this article can be found here. Our Tehran-based contributor Alborz Habibi talks to EU parliamentarian Marietje Schaake, also a Your Middle East contributor, about Europe-Iran relations in light of Rohani's presidency. Alborz Habibi, Your Middle East, 13.08.2013
YME: Congratulatory messages from the West poured in after Rohani’s victory in Iran's election. How does the EU wish to "seize" what some experts call a great opportunity? MS: It is up to President Rohani to lay out his policies once he takes office. I hope the Supreme Leader will give Mr. Rohani room to turn his election promise (of seeking a middle ground and openness) into actions. The publication of Ayatollah’s Khamenei’s fatwa's suggest preventive restrictions on freedom of media and the right to criticizing the regime ahead of Mr. Rohani's inauguration. This move may be a sign of concerns on the part of the religious leadership. Rohani has spoken of the need for Iran to open up to the rest of the world, about the harm of censorship of the media and Internet, as well as about his plans to protect Iranians’ civil rights and the rule of law. The acknowledgment of women’s rights and the release of journalists and political detainees after the 2009 elections are essential ingredients to be able to call Rohani’s victory “a great opportunity” for Iran. Besides that, I am sure the people in Iran are eager to know how he will end the economic decline and isolation of Iran. In the meantime, the EU should make technical preparations to lift sanctions and to engage in a human rights dialogue. This way the EU shows it expects meaningful change in attitude from the Iranian regime, and is itself willing to engage with Iran. YME: The EU level of representation at Rohani’s inauguration has recently sparked debates. Who would represent the EU at this event? MS: The Iranian media reported that for the first time the Islamic Republic of Iran has sent an invitation to almost all countries except to Israel and the United States. This is a promising gesture for more constructive dialogue between Iran and the rest of the world in the future. On the other hand domestically reformists such as Mr Mohammad Khatami are strongly discouraged to attend the inauguration. These two signals are contradictory. I am not sure who the Islamic Republic of Iran extended an invitation to, but the EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, who also leads the nuclear negotiations between the E3+3 and Iran would be the best positioned person to attend. YME: Some 118 US congressmen called for engaging with Iran recently, but their colleagues at the congress seem ready to propose tightened sanctions next month. Should these measures be taken at this time? MS: The US Congress, and specifically the House of Representatives currently held by a majority of Republicans, has shown before that it has its own reasoning for how it deals with Iran and with sanctions. Instead of treating sanctions like a means to an end, to get Iran to negotiate and end the development of dangerous nuclear weapons, some people in the United States seem to see sanctions as a goal in and of itself. US measures often have a great extra-territorial impact, also hampering the EU and its businesses. I believe the EU should act independently of the US, and that the US should stop imposing measures that immediately restrict the policy space for its EU allies. The EU has always deliberately drafted its own policies, with the clear goal not to impose measures that hurt the Iranian population. Instead, we have sought to use diplomacy to engage the regime on the nuclear dossier. YME: Do you expect any change in Iran and EU policies after Rohani’s victory? MS: I am certainly hopeful that EU-Iran relations will improve, however, Mr. Rohani will not be able to change all the problems Iran and its people have overnight. He was chosen from a small group of pre-selected candidates, in elections that may have been met with public support, but that took place in repressive conditions, and that can not be considered either free or fair. After his promises and plans during his campaign we will hold Mr. Rohani accountable for what he does. If Mr. Rohani will actually manage to turn some of his words into action, he can be a force for positive change. YME: Do you expect the nuclear standoff and other issues to be solved in the next four years? MS: Iran has the capability to enrich Uranium above 20 percent. The country has successfully increased the number of its centrifuges in the past eight years. On the political level Iran asks for its right to enrich Uranium according to the NPT to which it is signatory. The E3+3 have negotiated with Mr. Rohani himself in the past, in his role as the chief negotiator. As president he will be in charge of the execution of nuclear talks. For this there needs to be an understanding between him and the Supreme Leader. I am curious to see whether Rohani succeeds in finding common ground with Ayatollah Khamenei about Iran’s nuclear standoff. YME: New York Times reported that Iran is said to welcome direct talks with the US on the nuclear program, but the country's ambassador in Iraq rejected the report as inaccurate. What's your take on this? MS: The (self-) isolation of Iran has not contributed to understanding between people. In order to prevent confrontation or even war, diplomacy should be exhausted. It is a missed opportunity that the extended hand of the Obama administration was not taken as an opportunity by the regime in Iran. The issue of direct negotiations between Iran and the US has always been contested between the president and the supreme leader. As Ayatollah Khamenei recently mentioned, there were indeed direct talks between Iran and US, for example before the US military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq. I think it can be useful for the US and Iran to engage in direct talks. Even under the most challenged of circumstances, I believe diplomacy is preferred over conflict. YME: The State and Treasury Departments announced that the United States was expanding the list of medical devices which could be sold to Iran without a license. You have been criticizing sanctions that restrict sale of medicines to Iran. Do you find these sanctions to be irrational? MS: Sanctions that hurt an entire population, who cannot directly influence the nuclear program, are disproportionate. Sanctions are formally an incentive to get the Iranian regime to engage in meaningful negotiations on the nuclear program. People’s access to medicines and other basic needs such as food, should not be restricted. Sadly there is also mismanagement of the Iranian government on this case. According to an official of the Customs House because of “bureaucracy a huge number of medicines are layed up in the stores”. Sanctions risk becoming a collective punishment for the Iranian people when applied too broadly. YME: The US has repeatedly said, "all options are on the table" to curb Iran’s nuclear program. Does EU take the same stance? MS: Not only in case of Iran, but in politics, all options are always on the table. The EU will continue to avoid a (preventive) military strike. YME: The European parliamentary delegation visit to Iran was cancelled last year. Is the parliament planning another visit in the near future? MS: It is up to the new regime to extend an invitation to the European parliamentary delegation visit to Iran. From personal experience, to my regret, I can say that the failed attempts to visit have not made me feel confident about the ability or willingness of the Iranian authorities to host us. That being said, I would welcome the opportunity to visit Iran, to speak with people, who are known for their great cultural traditions and who can have an even greater future with responsible political leadership. It is essential to address concerns about human rights, fundamental freedoms as well as about the nuclear program directly with political and other leaders in Iran. Given the restrictions to press freedoms, and the expelling of foreign journalists from Iran, it is nearly impossible to have a complete sense of what is happening inside Iran. I hope there can be new avenues to ensure better understanding, not only on the political level, but also between the people of the EU and of Iran. This would facilitate exchanges of knowledge, culture and in the future hopefully also economic development.