Controversy dogs EU envoy's Iran visit

Catherine Ashton's landmark visit to Iran sparked protests and official criticism.

    Controversy dogs EU envoy's Iran visit
    Ashton met with Narges Mohammadi (R) and other rights activists soon after touching down in Iran [EPA]

    Tehran, Iran - Iranian hospitality and a warm welcome greeted the EU's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton on her visit this week - the first by a top EU official in six years. That, at least, was part of the reaction.

    During her two-day visit that started on Saturday, Ashton held talks with top officials including Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif over the landmark agreement between Iran and the so-called P5+1 (US, Russia, China, UK, France and Germany) on curbing its nuclear programme.

    Ashton also met with six prominent rights activists at the Austrian Embassy just hours after landing in the country, leading to an angry response from some officials and the state-run media.

    "Not surprisingly there was a big focus on human rights," said Ashton. "I met with women activists on International Women's Day and talked to them about the situation that women find themselves in."

    Iran's foreign ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham told reporters that a warning had been issued to the Austrian Embassy for arranging what she called an "unsanctioned meeting" with activists, including Narges Mohammadi, a human rights lawyer who had been sentenced to six years in jail, and Gohar Eshghi, the mother of Sattar Beheshti, a 35-year-old blogger who died in custody in 2012.

    She is a guest and shouldn't meet seditionists and feminists.

    - Mohammad Reza Zabihi, 18-year-old from Mazandaran

    "This type of behaviour does nothing to help the relationship between Iran and the West," Afkham said. "The Austrian ambassador has been called upon and has been notified about this undiplomatic [move]."

    There was also tough rhetoric in Iran's conservative-dominated parliament in protest against Ashton's meeting with the Iranian activists.

    "It was a violation of diplomatic rules and could herald future interventions in Iran's domestic affairs, which has to be prevented," the semi-official Fars news agency quoted General Masoud Jazayeri, deputy head of Iran's armed forces, as saying.

    Dozens of protesters and senior officials gathered peacefully but vocally on Wednesday in front of the Austrian Embassy to denounce the meeting. 

    On Iran's streets, the reaction to Ashton's contentious move was mixed.

    "She is a guest and shouldn't meet seditionists and feminists," Mohammad Reza Zabihi, 18, from Mazandaran province in northern Iran, told Al Jazeera.

    Ali, a 42-year-old teacher in Tehran who asked that his surname not be published to protect his safety, took a different view. "It's a good gesture, but acts like this should be avoided for now as it may provoke hardliners that are looking for any chance to lash out at the newly elected, moderate president."

    Activists' plight

    Beheshti died in custody in November 2012, after he was arrested for allegedly endangering national security, spreading propaganda, and insulting the values of the Islamic republic. He was allegedly beaten during interrogations and an Iranian court reportedly described his death as "quasi-murder". 

    In the last blog he wrote before being detained, Beheshti had said he was being constantly harassed by telephone by members of the security services.

    "Yesterday, they threatened to tell my mother that she would soon be wearing black if I did not shut up," he wrote.

    Ashton and Zarif share a laugh last month in Vienna [Reuters]

    A prominent human rights activist, Mohammadi has spent time in prison after being charged with "meeting and conspiring against the Islamic republic", among other accusations.

    Human rights concerns in Iran remain prevalent. The UN's human rights office said last month at least 80 people had been executed since the start of 2014.

    Ravina Shamdasani, spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said at least 500 people were executed in 2013, including 57 in public, but that the number may be as high as 625.

    Amir Sajjadi, an international relations student, told Al Jazeera that Ashton's meeting was a step forward for human rights in the country.

    "Despite hardliner criticism over Ashton's meeting with female activists, it is important to focus on commonalities. Such visits and talks with activists and with civil society are normal diplomatic approaches that Iran itself benefits from. Hardliners use these criticisms simply to attack Rouhani's policies."

    Nuclear agenda

    It was unclear whether the meeting would negatively affect November's breakthrough nuclear deal signed by Iran and the P5+1 aimed at curbing Tehran's development of nuclear capacity in exchange for limited relief from crippling economic sanctions.

    The interim deal runs from January 20 to July 20, 2014 and involves a staggered release of $4.2bn frozen assets in foreign bank accounts.

    Such visits and talks with activists and with civil society are normal diplomatic approaches that Iran itself benefits from. 

    - Amir Sajjadi, an international relations student

    Ashton represents the P5+1 in the negotiations. November's deal came after more than a decade of discussions.

    It is hoped a final agreement will be hammered out in the coming months, with the next high-level talks in Geneva starting March 17.  

    "This interim agreement is really important, but not as important as a comprehensive agreement," Ashton said at a joint news conference with Zarif on Sunday. She added, "There is no guarantee that we will succeed" because of the "difficult" circumstances surrounding the talks. 

    Majid, 25, a technician who lives in the capital and also asked his last name be withheld for security reasons, was cautious about what Ashton's visit might mean for future relations with the West.

    "The deal reached in November is interim and we need at least three years of talks to secure a final agreement, so the chances aren't high," he told Al Jazeera. "We have to test this approach, but the president shouldn't put all his eggs in the diplomacy basket."

    Saba, a student in Tabriz in northwest Iran who gave only her first name, was more optimistic.

    "President Rouhani enjoys the Supreme Leader's blessing and the people's support," he said. "This visit demonstrates good will on both sides - and a commitment on both sides to reach a comprehensive deal."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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