The planned controversial visit to Iran by a delegation of five members of the European Parliament was cancelled Saturday after Tehran refused to let them meet with two jailed Iran dissidents who were awarded on Friday a prestigious human rights prize by the EU institution.
“The Iranian authorities have refused to give permission to a delegation of MEPs set to travel to Tehran to meet with this year's Sakharov Prize winners Nasrin Sotoudeh and Jafar Panahi, after which the delegation cancelled the visit,” the head of the parliament delegation, Finnish Green MEP Tarja Cronberg, said.
"The five MEPs were about to leave for Tehran when delegation chair (Tarja Cronberg) received a phone call from the Iranian ambassador to the EU, saying they would not be allowed to meet with the two Sakharov Prize winners," a European Parliament source said.
Sotoudeh, a 47-year-old lawyer and leading human rights campaigner, who is serving an 11-year jail sentence for conspiring against state security, and Panahi, 52, a film director who is under house arrest and has been banned from making films for 20 years, were awarded the 2012 Sakharov Prize on Friday.
The human rights and democracy prize "is a message of solidarity and recognition to a woman and a man who have not been bowed by fear and intimidation and who have decided to put the fate of their country before their own," European Parliament President Martin Schulz said Friday.
The Iranians were chosen by Schulz and political group leaders in the European Parliament.
Schulz warned Friday that the visit of the parliamentarians would be cancelled if the delegation was unable to meet Sotoudeh and Panahi and hand-deliver the invitation to collect the prize in Strasbourg in December.
The rights award comes on the heels of tough new European Union sanctions against Iran aimed at forcing a breakthrough in talks between global powers and Tehran on its nuclear programme.
After a biting oil embargo took effect in July, EU leaders last week endorsed new sanctions by targeting dealings with Iran's banks, shipping and gas imports.
The last visit by a European parliamentary delegation to Iran was in 2007.
The ISNA news agency quoted Hossein Sheikholeslam, international affairs advisor to the speaker of parliament, as saying that Iran had "rejected a pre-condition set by the European parliamentary delegation to meet with two prisoners".
"If the delegation agrees to visit Iran under the initially agreed conditions and agenda, then there is no objection to the visit... But we cannot accept the current pre-condition."
The delegation, led by Tarja Cronberg, included also a leftist Danish MEP Cornelia Ernst (GUE, DE), Austrian Socialist Joseph Weidenholzer, Belgian Green Isabelle Durant and Spanish Socialist Juan Fernanco Lopez Aguilar (S&D, ES), was scheduled to meet their counterparts in the Majlis, the Iranian parliament, as well as representatives of the civil society from 27 October to 2 November.
In a statement before the announced cancellation, Tarja Cronberg, who chairs the European Parliament's delegation for relations with Iran, said the delegation would « follow up on the dialogue branch of the EU's twin-track approach to Iran of sanctions and dialogue and stress the EU's commitment to human rights by raising concerns directly with decision-makers and civil society representatives.”
The planned visit to Iran had been criticised by Jewish groups and within the parliament itself.
The Parliament’s Vice President, Alejo Vidal-Quadras, from the European People’s Party (Christian Democrat) group, the largest in the assembly, stated that "any formal delegation from the European Parliament to Iran would be extremely counter-productive coming so soon after increased sanctions were announced aimed at forcing Iran’s hand to abandoning its nuclear ambitions, as well as rejecting not only human rights violations, but also repression, fundamentalism and terrorism."
European Jewish Congress President Moshe Kantor expressed his surprise "that the European Parliament, the Union’s ultimate symbol of democracy and human rights, should be seen in any way as granting legitimacy to a regime which has shown a constant disdain for basic human rights and democratic practices in its own country while simultaneously threatening the very physical existence of its neighbours and in particular, the State of Israel."
Earlier this week, a Belgian Socialist MEP, Kathleen Van Brempt, who was supposed to join the delegation, withdrew her participation saying that while she was in favour of dialogue “this is not the right time to visit Iran."