The Politics of the EU Resolution on Iran

by Farideh Farhi

On April 3 the European Parliament (EP) passed a resolution on EU Strategy towards Iran. It proposes the opening of a EU delegation in Tehran; cooperation in a number of areas such as the fight against narcotic drugs, environmental protection, and exchanges of students and academics; engaging with Iran on ending the Syrian civil war; stabilising Afghanistan; and outlining the prospect of lifting nuclear-related sanctions against Iran once there is a final agreement on the nuclear issue.

The resolution was offered as a signal of the EP’s desire to embark on a new relationship with Iran, but its questioning of the legitimacy of Iran’s 2013 presidential election and recommendation for parliamentary delegations that visit Iran to meet with dissidents angered Tehran and led to the cancellation of a visit by an Iranian parliamentary delegation to Strasbourg in eastern France. Even Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was compelled to question the powers of the EP, saying it does not have the political and ethical standing to “preach to others.”

I contacted Eldar Mamedov to learn about the politics of this resolution and how it came to be after a couple of visits to Iran by the European Parliament’s delegation. Mamedov is the Political Advisor for the Social-Democratic Group in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament. I saw him in Tehran last October when he accompanied a delegation from the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats — this was the first European parliamentary delegation to visit Iran since 2007. He later accompanied the delegation headed by Tarja Cronberg who is a member of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, its subcommittee on Security and Defence, and the Chair of the Iran delegation. It was this delegation that extended the now cancelled invitation to Iran’s parliamentary members to visit Europe. Mamedov agreed to talk to me in his private capacity and emphasized that the views expressed here are not necessarily the position of the Social-Democrat Group or the EP.

Farideh Farhi: Before discussing the politics of the EP resolution that was just passed, can you elaborate on the powers of the EP and the role it has in EU foreign policy decision-making? Does it have significant powers to influence the policy direction of the European Union or is the message mostly a statement of sentiments?

Eldar Mamedov: The EU, as a union of 28 nations, has a complex institutional architecture. All essential foreign policy decisions are taken by the Council of the EU, the institution representing EU member state governments. That’s where ministers from each member state meet and decide on laws and policies.

After the major reform of the EU in 2009 known as the Lisbon Treaty, the EP has acquired new powers on foreign policy. In addition to its power over the EU budget, including the foreign policy appropriations (which it already had before 2009), it can now grant or withdraw consent to international agreements concluded in the name of the EU with other countries. That means that if, for example, the EU signs a trade agreement with Iran it must be ratified by the EP.

But EP positions on foreign affairs carry weight, even if they are not legally binding, because they are expressed by the only directly elected body of the EU and therefore are considered important political messages.

Q: Since the election of Hassan Rouhani, two EP delegations have visited Iran. The EU’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton also visited Tehran in March. These visits suggested a desire to recalibrate Europe’s relationship with Iran. What explains the EP’s decision to adopt a resolution at this time?

This is not the first EP resolution regarding Iran. There have been many others that call on Iran to improve its human rights record. But this one tried to set a new tone.

The previous EP report on EU strategy on Iran, known as the Belder report, was adopted in 2011. It was a hawkish report drafted by a rapporteur known for his close links to Israel. It called to maintain and expand the sanctions regime against Iran, condemned Iran’s regional policies and scarcely outlined any areas of possible cooperation. The overall context — Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency, the post-2009 election crackdown — made it very difficult for supporters of engagement to press their case. After the election of Hassan Rouhani as the president of Iran, and especially after the Geneva interim nuclear deal on 24 November 2013, prospects for the normalization of relations between the West and Iran improved and it was felt that the time has come to adjust the EP’s position to the new situation and make a constructive contribution to EU policy on Iran. The Parliament is in a better position to do so than the European External Action Service (EEAS), which operates under the authority of the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton or the Ministerial Council, where taking bold steps requires lengthy and complicated negotiations, and where some big countries, such as the UK and France, have a tough approach to Iran.

The Socialists & Democrats Group (S&D), the main progressive group in the Parliament, stepped in and assumed initiative on the Iranian file. In October 2013, even before the Geneva deal, a delegation of the S&D led by its president, Hannes Swoboda, visited Tehran and held talks with Iranian officials, including former President Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and the Speaker of the Parliament, Ali Larijani. This was the first visit from the EP to Iran in 6 years. Subsequently the S&D’s Spanish member Maria Muniz became the rapporteur on Iran and prepared the first draft for consideration in the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Q. The way you describe it, there was quite a bit of political wrangling regarding the language of the resolution, and the intent was to push for improved relations with Iran rather than reiterate the EP’s concerns regarding Iran’s domestic affairs. What was the process leading to the adoption of the report?

First, the rapporteur presented her draft. Then it was opened to amendments by different members representing their political groups. The method in the EP is to work on compromises between the original text and the amendments. Those amendments that cannot be deemed as covered by the compromise have to be voted on separately.

When the amendments were tabled, it became apparent that there were broadly two approaches: the forward-looking, constructive one advocated by the S&D rapporteur and other progressive groups, which included Liberals, Greens and United Left, and the one put forward by conservative groups such as the European People’s Party (EPP). The EPP includes Christian-Democrats and other mainstream centre-right political groups. It is the biggest group in the EP. Other conservative groups involved in this process included the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) with British Tories and associated right-wing allies, and the Europe of Freedom and Democracy (EFD), which includes far right groups such as the UKIP or Italy’s Northern League.

The conservative block sought to minimize or deny the positive elements of the resolution by using three strategies: 1) making any improvement in relations, however modest, conditional on a final and comprehensive nuclear agreement; 2) while welcoming the Geneva deal, emphasizing that Iran is still in violation of several United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions; 3) questioning the legitimacy of Rouhani as the president of Iran by pointing to the “non-democratic nature” of Iran’s elections and associating him with the steady rise in executions during the last few months.

In its most extreme form, the conservative line dismissed the Geneva deal for allowing Iran to preserve its enrichment activities and called for continuing a “robust sanctions regime” (language used by the EFD). The EFD also asked to defend the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council countries from the Iranian threat. Interestingly, conservative group members (some of them with links to the exiled Iranian opposition group, the Mujahadeen-e-Khalq (MEK), such as Spanish EPP member Alejo Vidal-Quadras and British ECR member Struan Stevenson) proposed amendments deleting the call for an opening of the EU office in Tehran, fully in line with the position of their supposed enemies — Iranian hardliners.

It must be said that not all in the EPP held such a hawkish position, but the hardliners were better mobilized to press their case than the moderates. This allowed them to win the internal EPP debate.

For the rapporteur and the progressives, the conservative strategies were not acceptable for several reasons. First, there are areas that require an urgent dialogue with Iran, such as ending the civil war in Syria and stabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan, which is why the EU can ill afford to postpone discussion of other issues except the nuclear one until after a final deal is reached. Besides, cooperation in areas of mutual interest may create trust and good will necessary for a successful final nuclear deal. Second, insisting on Iran’s violations of UNSC resolutions makes little sense when the same UNSC members plus Germany have negotiated the Geneva deal, which tacitly recognizes Iran’s right for limited enrichment. Thus, welcoming the Geneva deal and insisting on the UN resolutions is contradictory. Third, doubting the democratic credibility of Rouhani’s election serves no other purpose than to undermine his legitimacy, as does linking him with Iran’s sharp increase in executions, which is, by the way, under the purview of the judiciary, not the president.

Since the progressive and conservative blocks are roughly equal in the EP, there was a need to reach compromise on these issues to make the final text acceptable to the large majority.

Q: Can you explain the nature of compromises made in the final text?

The final text as adopted reflects the compromise achieved between the progressives and conservatives, but it is actually more progressive-leaning.

Here are some examples:

  • The final text insists on simultaneous and reciprocal action from both sides to make sure the Geneva accord (the Joint Plan of Action) leads to a final deal. Reciprocity is the key notion here, instead of insisting on one-sided Iranian concessions.
  • In a concession to the conservatives, the final text states that the presidential elections were not held in accordance with European democratic standards. But in the next sentence it refers to “President Hassan Rouhani” and acknowledges his readiness for more open and constructive relations between the EU and Iran. This means that the resolution recognizes Mr. Rouhani as the legitimate president of Iran.
  • While the text does identify Iran’s nuclear activities as in contradiction to previous UNSC resolutions, it rejected (or did not include) the EPP/ECR amendment to the effect  that the Geneva accord does not change the fact that Iran is still in violation of those resolutions.
  • The text vocalizes EP support for the Geneva agreement and considers it vital for the comprehensive agreement to be reached within the agreed time-frame. It gives clear support for continued diplomacy even though a defeated EFD amendment criticised the Geneva deal and called for a “robust sanctions regime.”
  • The text stresses that there can be no alternative to a peaceful, negotiated solution of the nuclear issue and that Iranian security concerns and sensitivities should be taken into account. The EPP wanted instead to have “the peaceful solution as the best solution.” Little nuance, but an important one: “no alternative to a peaceful solution” is stronger language than merely stating that it would be the “best solution”. And the notion that Iran has legitimate security concerns is also recognized.
  • The text welcomes the decisions of the EU [ministerial] Council to partially lift sanctions — it also outlines the prospect of lifting nuclear-related sanctions altogether after the final deal is agreed.
  • The conservatives’ desire to introduce strict conditionality linking any further improvement of relations with Iran to a final agreement on the nuclear issue was rejected. The final text only states that more constructive relations with Iran are contingent merely on progress in the implementation of the Joint Action Plan.
  • The call for the opening of the EU delegation in Tehran was opposed by the conservatives but was approved for the final text.
  •  The final text calls on the Council of the EU to consider a number of important areas for cooperation with Iran such as a joint fight against drug trafficking, environmental protection, technology transfers, infrastructure development and planning, education, culture, and health. The EPP wanted to make this all conditional on a final agreement. But the text only states that it should be “subject to substantial progress in nuclear negotiations”, which is merely stating the obvious, but not adding new restrictive conditions.
  • This text also expresses concerns over possible outbreaks of infectious diseases due to medicine shortages caused by the sanctions — a rather bold admission for an EP resolution.
  • Concerns about the environmental situation in Iran are noted and there is a call for cooperation with Iranian scientists and environmental organisations.
  • The importance of fostering trade with Iran is emphasized.
  • The text calls on EU institutions not merely to increase exchanges of students and academics but to make a concerted effort to assist the process. This is meaningful, since too often different branches of the EU bureaucracy do not coordinate their actions sufficiently.
  • The text calls for a more independent EU policy towards Iran. This is a very important statement, meaning mainly not to simply follow US policies.
  • The text calls on Iran to be involved in all discussions on ending the Syrian civil war.  “All” implies Iran’s inclusion in the Geneva II process. Conservative amendments only condemned Iran for its support for the Assad regime.
  • The text encourages the EU to facilitate dialogue between Iran and GCC countries. In contrast, a defeated EFD amendment called to protect the GCC from the Iranian threat.
  •  The text calls for joint efforts in Afghanistan — again, an EPP amendment tried to delete this part.

Q: And what were the compromises related to human rights in Iran?

This is the most critical part of the resolution. Both progressives and conservatives agree that the human rights situation in Iran continues to be unacceptable. But there are still nuances. The text acknowledges the release of some political prisoners, including the Sakharov prize awardee Nasrin Sotoudeh, by the Rouhani government. It also “notes with interest” President Rouhani’s initiative on a new “citizenship chapter”.

It calls on Iran to issue a visa to the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran Ahmad Shaheed, which Iran doesn’t like, since it doesn’t accept that its human rights record is bad enough to warrant the appointment of a special rapporteur. It also calls on the UN HR High Commissioner Navi Pillay to accept Iran’s invitation to visit the country.

The most offensive part according to the Iranians is the language interpreted as obliging EP delegations visiting Iran to meet with dissidents. But this is a standard practice in the EP, and Iran is not being singled out on this. Moreover, the resolution does not make any future visits to Iran conditional on such meetings, but merely recommends to future delegations “to be committed” to meeting the opposition and civil society representatives. This is a recommendation and a wish, not a condition. Besides, the next European Parliament will decide on future delegation visits on a case-by-case basis.

Q: How has the EP’s views on Iran’s human rights record been shaped?

The information used in the resolution comes from respected human rights organizations that focus on Iran, such as the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, the Iran Human Rights Documentation Centre, and the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation. 

While some EP members might have close ties with the Israeli government or the MEK, this had a negligible effect on the human rights chapter of the resolution. Iran’s high number of executions and discrimination against LGBT people and Bahais are universal concerns in the EP.

Q: Is Iran singled out on human rights?

No. The EP issues critical resolutions on human rights and democracy even on its own member states. Hungary is a case in point. Also on allies: in 2005-2006 there was a whole special committee to investigate Guantanamo and secret rendition flights and prisons in the context of the “war on terror”.

This March the EP adopted a strongly critical report on Saudi Arabia (with S&D MEP Ana Gomes as the Rapporteur). It was actually more critical than the recent resolution on Iran: it criticised Saudi Arabia for its role in promoting Wahhabism/Salafism worldwide and supporting extremist forces in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Q: But reports are different from resolutions, no?

The difference is merely procedural. Resolutions are prepared faster, but in terms of the political status and impact, there is no difference. The final text should be measured not against what would be ideal, but against the political realities and correlation of forces in the EP. As such, it is always a result of compromise and debate. From this point of view, this was the most forward-looking text on Iran that this Parliament has ever produced.

Q: Given that this is not the first time a resolution has been adopted, why do you think it created such uproar inside Iran this time while previous resolutions were ignored? Given the cancellation of the Iranian delegation’s visit, do you think the progressives’ efforts to pave the way for improved interactions with Iran may have ended up being counter-productive? The way it sounds, the intention was to change the direction of the EP, but perceptions in Iran, devoid of context, were otherwise. Is this a dilemma for EP progressives?

The reactions in Tehran were not surprising, but we now have dialogue, which didn’t occur in the past. When you talk to people, you also receive reactions. So, it might sound counter-intuitive, but in a way these reactions testify to the progress that we’ve been able to achieve in recent months.

That said, these reactions are mostly about politics in Iran. The conservatives use the resolution to embarrass the reformists and moderates who support engagement with Europe and US. We have exactly the same situation in Europe: our hardliners attack the progressives as the “appeasers of mullahs”. Both European and Iranian hardliners converge in one point: they don’t want a more constructive relationship between Europe and Iran. But Iranian conservatives and hardliners are not the only target audience of this resolution. The reformists and the moderates have noticed the positive elements in it. I think it would be a great idea to translate this resolution into Persian so that the Iranian people might draw their own conclusions.

In any case, even if some factions strongly disagree with the resolution, cancelling the visit of the Iranian parliamentarians to Europe was a bad idea. If you want to make a point, you have to talk. In the absence of dialogue, the only winners are groups like the MEK, who organised a conference in the European Parliament to use the reactions to the resolution as supposed “proof” that nothing has changed in Tehran.

Photo Credit: © European Union 2014 – European Parliament

Farideh Farhi

Farideh Farhi is an Independent Scholar and Affiliate Graduate Faculty at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. She has taught comparative politics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, University of Hawai'i, University of Tehran, and Shahid Beheshti University, Tehran. Her publications include States and Urban-Based Revolutions in Iran and Nicaragua , Power and Change in Iran: Politics of Contention and Conciliation (co-edited with Dan Brumberg), and numerous articles and book chapters on comparative analyses of revolutions and Iranian politics. She has been a recipient of grants from the United States Institute of Peace and the Rockefeller Foundation and Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She has also worked as a consultant for the World Bank and the International Crisis Group.



  1. This is a very useful and important piece, because it clarifies the motivations and the bargaining that went on behind the EP resolution that has created such a fuss in Iran. The interview shows that there are neocons in the EP and the EU Commission as there are in the United States. As Mr. Mamedov points, although the resolution was much milder in tone towards Iran compared to previous resolutions, it has been simply used by Iranian hardliners to attack Ruhani’s government and particularly its foreign policy.

    Some rightwing newspapers, such as Resalat in its editorial on April 13th, have even compared the EP resolution to the Turkmanchai Treaty, a treaty signed in 1828 between Iran and Russia after an Iranian defeat by Tsarist Russia and ceding a large expanse of territory to Russia. The article points out that the worst aspect of Turkmanchai Treaty was its article 7, which gave Russia a say in Iranian political issues including the issue of succession, and it compares the recommendation to EU visitors to Iran to meet with Iranian dissidents as a similar form of interference in Iran’s domestic affairs.

    What I find strange about the resolution’s statement on Rouhani’s election is that the election that led to his victory was perhaps one of the fairest elections since the revolution. To blame the government for the large number of executions, which come under the jurisdiction of rightwing judiciary, was also strange. However, the stress on human rights is absolutely valid and should be pursued with vigor.

    Nevertheless, if the EU really wants to help improve the situation in Iran it should tackle one issue at a time and not lump a number of different concerns together in a way that provides an excuse to the hardliners. The greater the contact between Iran and the EU the easier it would be for Iranian moderates to assert themselves. I hope this article will be translated into Persian and disseminated widely so that more moderate Iranians can see that the hardliners are misinterpreting the intention of the resolution.

  2. I too hope the Iranians will reconsider their decision not to visit the European Parliament.
    It is only through dialogue that countries and regional blocs can come together and work together for peace, justice and prosperity.
    Iran has a venerable history and it is time it reached out and took its place alongside other civilised countries in today’s world in pursuit of peace and reconciliation.

  3. Fine piece. I too regretted the cancellation of the visit by Iranian legislators to Strasbourg.

  4. Informative article, thank you, as it brings to light, more than we usually see. Interesting how the “lump into the resolution”, other items, to appease the different groups, which produce results as we have seen. I should say this, it reminds me somewhat of taking dirty laundry to a laundromat, but instead of separating the colors, putting them all in together, especially the “whites”, which become tainted by the other colors in the wash.

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