"We Need to Strengthen the Dialogue with Iran"

In spite of the conservative shift following the Iranian parliamentary elections, Michael Gahler, member of the European Parliament, sees good chances for expanding political and economic relations between Europe and Iran.

Interview: Peter Philipp

photo: CDU Gross-Gerau
Michael Gahler

​​Some in Teheran were displeased by statements made by the European Parliament with regard to the recent parliamentary elections in Iran. With those elections over, is there now a new and more differentiated European view?

Michael Gahler: We always took a differentiated view. We at the European Parliament demanded nothing more and nothing less than free and fair elections. And in this context we were in agreement with the majority of the Iranian parliament, as well as the opinion of the president and the government.

In Iran in particular – where certain circles have again and again claimed we were interfering – my answer to the Iranians was: You see, we are only repeating demands that are being made within Iran itself. And for that reason, it’s impossible to take a "differentiated" view concerning democratic or undemocratic conditions. Indeed, we have taken a very clear position.

But this "clear position" has not served to improve relations. At least, it has not improved the mood within conservative circles in Teheran. In light of this, how do you see the future of European-Iranian relations? Will the dialogue that has been taking place be damaged or endangered, or can it be carried on in the same way as it has been up to now?

Gahler: In spite of our criticism of procedures in the lead-up to the election, we have always stressed that we advocate on-going dialogue at all levels. And here I am speaking of the parliamentary area (there are also the human rights dialogue and a few other points for which we have a common agenda).

Also in the area of nuclear science, where it is in our interests for Iran to comply with the regulations of the International Atomic Energy Organization, and also the war against drug trafficking in the region. As you know, Afghanistan is the world’s largest producer, and most of the transport routes go through Iran, usually with Europe as a final destination.

Therefore we are interested in cooperation with Iran on this topic. But that does not mean we have come to some sort of agreement involving a distribution of tasks: That Iran fulfils the requirements of the international community when it comes to questions of nuclear energy, and then in return – along the lines of: Now you should let us oppress democratic trends in our country for a while – we turn a blind eye.

I also hope that is not the position of our governments. The European Parliament, for our part, will never agree to any compromises when it comes to democratic principles.

Of course, in the area of the drug problem there is a clear and common interest. But on other topics, the interest seems to be greater on the European side, for example in the case of the Iranian atomic energy program …

Gahler: On the nuclear question in particular, it has become clear to the Iranians that the alternative to working within the IAEO would have been to bring the matter up before the UN Security Council. And then their position would have been a more difficult one – there are also veto rights.

I believe the Iranians have realized that it is within their interests for the matter to be handled by the atomic energy organization. If they had to make their case before the security council, they would be in a much more difficult position.

Another important topic for many years has been the question of human rights. Do you believe the dialog on human rights has accomplished anything at all?

Gahler: This question always comes up, also with other countries, China, for example: Is it doing any good? I believe that at the very least it strengthens the domestic political position of human rights advocates. During our dialogue, we didn’t so much have the impression that a European-Iranian debate was taking place, but instead we felt we were really witnessing a debate taking place within Iran itself.

And it was not the case that only conservative or only progressive influences were present. Rather, the entire spectrum of Iran was represented: members of parliament, professors, but of course also representatives of the justice system, who would be on the conservative side. And basically the debate took place within the Iranian delegation itself. So to the extent that we were able to serve as a catalyst of inner-Iranian debate, that is at least one result.

Other than that, just two weeks ago the Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi was invited by the foreign relations committee of the European Parliament. And of course, those are political signals we send, with which we support democratic tendencies in Iran. I believe, altogether one does see results. And at the European Parliament we will also set up our own Iran delegation for the new parliament, because this shows the tremendous importance we place on our relations with the country.

Taking a close look at those relations, it seems the emphasis on the part of the Iranians is on business...

Gahler: We don’t want to isolate the country. On the contrary: We want to keep the dialogue open, and we want to build up both kinds of contacts, economic and political, without losing sight of the area of human rights.

Iran needs cooperation with Europe more than Europe needs Iran. And that means one has to accept that the agenda is not merely an economic one, but that it also encompasses other dimensions. And we will also remind our governments of this again and again. Basically, we will negotiate the cooperation agreement, but from the outset we have explained to the Iranian side: Once the contract has been written, it must be ratified by the European Parliament.

In this context it is also clear: If we don’t include a substantial human rights clause in the agreement – and in the meantime we have them in the entire AKP area – and the situation in Iran has not improved considerably, there will be no ratification by the European Parliament.

But there’s no denying the Iranian parliament has turned more conservative since the last elections. Won’t that mean additional obstacles to the struggle for human rights?

Gahler: For domestic reasons, the conservatives will permit some liberalization – especially in the economic area. All of that back-and-forth prior to the elections was of course just an attempt by the conservatives to halt the success of the reformers. But even the conservatives know the mood of the people, and they are aware that the people must let off some steam somewhere.

Still, they were unwilling to allow the reformers any kind of success. What’s important, however, is how the Iranian people behave: Up to now it has held the reformers partially responsible for the fact that nothing has changed. That’s why the people made no particular effort to support the reformers during their recent sit-in.

And they didn’t go to the polls to support the reformers. But now it is finally clear to them who is really responsible if things don’t work. That is, it’s the conservatives. And now, in the short term or the long term, that is where the domestic pressure will be rising within Iran.

Peter Philipp
Translation from German: Mark Rossman