Washington, DC – “We should be very careful that there is not some sort of zero sum equation between focusing only on the nuclear issue and forgetting about the plight of the Iranian people who live under systematic and difficult repression,” observed Marietje Schaake, a member of the European Parliament and human rights expert, speaking at the Atlantic Council.
Schaake, who recently visited Iran for five days as part of an official EU delegation, advocated that channels for engagement with Iran be expanded to address issues beyond the nuclear file–including regional areas of mutual interest and concerns regarding human rights.
Schaake’s delegation met with officials of different political stripes, including two of the Larijani brothers who are prominent leaders of Iran’s conservative bloc, as well as human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh. They presented Sotoudeh and Jaffar Panahi with the EU’s highest human rights award, the Sakhrov Prize. That meeting sparked a firestorm in hardline media.
“We should make it clear to our domestic audience who is responsible for what developments in Iran,” she said, explaining that that “the hardliners in Iran, the judiciary, and the high numbers of executions are very much also intended to undermine the efforts of the reformists.”
She said that the best approach is through expanding dialogue as well as by “bolstering civil society in Iran, but also a private sector–which can be really effective in counterbalancing those at the top who hold so many resources.”
“The greatest capital in Iran is the human capital,” said Schaake. “It was remarkable how much energy and how much a sense of optimism one got from the streets,” she said. “I have honestly never felt so welcomed in any country that I’ve visited.” While Schaake noted that previous attempts to organize EU delegation visits had been difficult over the past several years and often scuttled at the last minute, she said the “new opening” created by the election of President Hassan Rouhani enabled her and four other European parliamentarians to finally visit this past December.
With regard to the new government’s promises to address limits on personal freedoms in Iran, Schaake said that “there was a great sense of a less tangible securitized environment” and that many Iranians told her that “the morality police that deals with clothing was less present, that the atmosphere in the street was much lighter than it used to be.”
However, she said that, until systematic changes are made to the laws themselves, these positive gestures can be reversed within an instant. Repressive laws can make anyone a target, Schaake observed, and help empower hardline elements including security forces, the Revolutionary Guards, and the Judiciary, while perpetuating an insecure relationship between Iranians and the state.
Schaake was also asked at the event about continued reports of medicine shortages in Iran. She noted that the preliminary nuclear agreement negotiated with Iran included a provision to establish a a humanitarian banking channel, but that “most banks are still hesitant to facilitate these transactions.” She said that Iranian government mismanagement was also to blame for shortages, but that U.S. extraterritorial sanctions made EU efforts to facilitate humanitarian trade difficult. If the U.S. and Europe fail to establish a humanitarian channel, she said, it would be a major mistake. “If we agree to lift sanctions, we have to also make it practically implementable.”
A centrist when it comes to the EU’s Iran policy, Schaake advocated for a unified effort among the European states to push open the window for diplomacy, and is recommending that the EU establish official diplomatic representation in Iran. In her view, action by EU states to advance diplomacy will ultimately benefit the Iranian people. “It is upon those of us who believe reforms will benefit the Iranian people to try to do everything we can to make them happen,” she observed, “of course very well realizing that those who seek reform are not the only ones in power in Iran, and that it is very much an uphill battle, but one that is worth pursuing.”Back to top