Critical Dialogue or Critical Business? - Babak Namdar


There are numerous different aspects one could talk about when describing the European and Iranian interaction. However only one point seems to stick out, namely that after a decade of 'critical dialogue' the EU has almost nothing to show for it.In December 1992 the European Union officially decided to engage Iran in 'critical dialogue' aimed at softening Iran’s behavior while rewarding it with economic benefits.The road to dialog has not exactly been smooth especially after 1997, when a German court ruled that the death of the four Iranian dissidents in Berlin was ordered by "figures at the highest levels of the Iranian government, including the supreme spiritual leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei” [1]. After the court ruling ambassadors were withdrawn from Iran and the EU and the bilateral discussions were put on ice. In 1998, one year after the arrival of the Iranian “reformist” president Khatami, the EU's dialogue was quickly thawed out. Khatami's speeches about “religious democracy”, “civil society”,and “rule of law” seemed to attract Europeans, as well as Iranians themselves. Fast-forwarding now to 2003 certain things have become crystallized. First thing that we can distinctly now see is that the Khatami honeymoon is over. Iranians have seen him for what he is, a cleric seeking to prolong the Islamic Republic's existence, and a person who has no power.The European Union however still does not want to throw in the towel, dearly clinging to the idea that the moderates in the Iranian regime can in fact bring about change, a idea who's time has come and is now long gone.

The EU's dialogue is based on the premise that Iran's government is made up of two main factions,one being the conservative "hardliners" and the moderate "reformists".While the Europeans make a great distinction between the former and latter they are both essentially the same, and share a very fundamental trait. Both the conservatives and the moderates have vested interest in preventing the collapse of the Islamic Republic, a task that seems inevitable to fail. This epic battle between “reformists” and “hardliners” is nothing but a little spiel, to distract the world from the real underlying problem – that the Islamic Republic has failed to attend to it's citizen's needs.During the Iranian elections in 2000 the moderates got the majority of the seats, and ever since, “reformists” have dominated the parliament. One would think that with a parliament controlled by moderates, a president who's seeking change, and the EU supporting all these moderate forces, positive change would be inevitable right? In short, no! Freedoms have not expanded to any great degree, and the same can be said of human rights, and if anything they have shrunk and deteriorated further. The fact is Khatami has proven to be either incapable or unwilling to implement changes he promised, and the parliament has proven to be impotent in regards to meeting people's needs. The EU either has full knowledge of the moderate's in capabilities or is completely oblivious regarding the politics in Iran, and either way you look at it the people of Iran are suffering in part because of illogical policies of the EU. It unclear what type of evidence needs to be presented to the Europeans for them to understand that the idea that "if we want to help lock in reforms in Iran, we can contribute by agreeing on a trade and co-operation package, which includes a political and terrorism dialogue. [2]" is incorrect and false.

Since the record of progress (or lack there of) seems to support that 'critical dialogue' has not worked, why is the EU still engaged in talks?The EU would like to make it clear that “for those who believe that the EU policy is cynically and exclusively geared toward commercial goals” to know that “for most EU states Iran is not a really important trade partner...[3]” According to statistics for the year 2001 EU imported more then 6.5 Euros worth, and Iran imported more then 7 billions Euro worth from the EU.
The vast majority (80%) of products imported from Iran were oil products,while EU's list of exported products to Iran were more diversified such as industrial and machinery products [4].In 2001 Iran stood 32nd in regards to volume of trade to the EU, while the EU was Iran's biggest trade partner [5].
Now while Mr.Wersch asserted that Iran is not that important of a trading partner, Europe's powerhouse–Germany, made up 11% of Iran's imports, with Italy making up another 8%.In regards to exporting, Italy
and France combined, almost made up 12% of Iran's exports [12].The fact that import/exports to the EU
account for 40% of Iran's trade is rarely noted, and for good reason [6].The European Union would rather not be reminded that it's policies are in fact funding a government which is not exactly popular at home.If the Europeans are in fact interested in helping bring about positive change in Iran,then directly subsidizing the repression the Iranian government instills upon its citizen is certainly not a good method. The EU doesn’t need Iran's trade, where Iran absolutely needs EU trade to stay afloat.

Europe's lobbying efforts to get the Iranian parliament to pass less repressive laws have been unsuccessful. Lawmakers in the majles seem to be of the view that by passing laws that loosen some social restrictions, the people's thirst for real freedom will diminish, and hence the system will not be threatened. An example of “reformist” lawmakers at work can be seen at the passing of the “political crimes” law. This bill was the second attempt at the moderates of passing a bill that would allow people to criticize things without being punished for their views. The first time the bill was submitted to the guardian council it was rejected because of a article that stated "[to] express an opinion on political, social, cultural and economic subjects and to criticize the actions of officials and institutions is not an offense” The second time the bill got submitted political offenses included gatherings that “threaten state security”, inviting “propaganda against the regime in support of groups hostile to the regime”. One also can't insult the “ the president or vice-president of the executive power, ministers, deputies, members of the Experts Assembly (which appoints Iran's supreme leader) and the Guardians Council [6]”. We shouldn't be fooled by the word “insult” that's used in the bill, by a regime that thinks that to criticize is to insult, and to question is to threaten. Outcomes such the ones described above is nothing new, a bill gets introduced, the Guardian Council rejects it, the bill is amended and diluted beyond recognition to ensure passage, Guardian Council approves of the bills Islamic-ness and the bill comes law.While the average Iranian views these events as proof that the regime can't be changed, the EU on the other hand would like to point out that the second time around this bill passed, and the “reformers” won and hence their engagement policy works – yes sad indeed!There's more to be said about useless, cosmetic laws that are getting churned out by the Iranian parliament, such as the “temporary” banning of stoning, but that would be beyond the scope of this paper [7].

Perhaps one could excuse the sad record of the EU's policy of engagement, if the average Iranian was living better as a result of the dialogue, but 72% of the Iranian populations were living under poverty in 2001, up from 62% in 1998 [8].While the population is getting poorer the Islamic government is becoming richer.Iran's GDP rose 12% from 1998 to 2001, clearly the Iranian government is making money but unfortunately does not want to share it with it's citizens.Perhaps it should be cited that 67% of the national budget is allocated to “government owned companies, banks and various institutions affiliated to the Iranian public sector” [13].So exactly how does the EU tie into Iran's poor folks? Simple, by funding the Islamic regime, the EU is in fact rewarding Iran with its behavior.So what if millions of Iranians are poverty stricken, trade is up and that's all that seems to matter to the EU. Supporters of the EU dialog would like to point out that the tca (trade co-operation agreement) is specifically linked to human rights improvements, but what is considered improvements? How can the Europeans even expect positive results, with a regime which bluntly says “...if the Westerners do not like it, that is their problem, but the death penalty and the use of flogging are fundamental principles of our religion”? There seems to be a lack of objectivity from the EU regarding the worsening of every aspect of Iranian life.No one is expecting to have the EU directly improve the human rights situation in Iran, but when they claim that trade and human rights are interlinked then perhaps they should heed their own statements. If we do take them at their own word, then there should be no trade going on whatsoever.

At least 139 people executed, and 285 flogged in 2002 [14], over 56 publications have been barred since March 2000, and already in January 2003, 5 newspapers have been shut down, is this the type of improvements the EU would like to see?Perhaps the EU views the rejection of a bill that would ban torture as a positive step forward? Does the EU might consider a regime that praises the Taliban with statements such as “The Taliban, whom we criticize so much, have established security for its people. Are we any less than they are?”[15] As leaders who seek to better human rights? One could go on with the “improvements” the Islamic regime has made, but this paper is not meant to be turned into a twenty-volume book set. In light of history, one can't take comments such as "if we don't see results quickly enough, we will reconsider our policy of critical dialogue [11]” seriously.The EU has not seen real positive changes for a decade, but yet they still stand by their'critical dialogue', and in the process Iranians suffer.

Babak Namdar is the Director of Foreign Policy for Marze Por Gohar Party, Iranians for a secular republic.