"I have not seen any opening for negotiations," said Foreign Affairs Committee chair Elmar Brok (EPP-ED, DE) at the end of a meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Manoochehr Mottaki on Monday. "We have a long way to go before we will understand each other". Before reaching this conclusion, MEPs had questioned the Iranian minister on Iran's nuclear programme, its stance on the cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed and its views on the state of Israel.
In tense silence, MEPs listened to Mr Mottaki's introductory speech, in which he said that Iran was ready to accept the Russian proposal to have uranium enriched in Russia on certain conditions but that it would meanwhile continue its nuclear research. Mr Mottaki stressed that Iran, as a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, has every right to develop a nuclear capacity for peaceful purposes and had fully cooperated with the IAEA and had negotiated with the EU3 for the past three years. "But unfortunately, at the end our dear friends of the EU3 made a proposal in which no reference was made to Iran's absolute and undeniable right to have access to nuclear technology", Mr Mottaki said. Even so, Iran was ready to negotiate on safeguards against the possible use of its nuclear technology to develop weapons. But, he stressed later, "Our red line is that we will not forego the rights of the Iranian people. No Iranian official can trample on the rights of the Iranian people".
Mr Mottaki agreed that trust was needed but stressed that this was "a two-way street". He was sorry to say that Iran did not sufficiently trust Europe, because of "bitter experiences from the past": he cited German and French breaches of promises to help Iran develop its nuclear technology, as well as the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and low-grade uranium weapons used in Iraq.
On the cartoons, Mr Mottaki said "our friends in Europe should avoid using double standards": even under Danish laws "religious values may not be insulted", he said. "What happened in Denmark provoked many Muslims throughout the world" but Iran "is doing its utmost to alleviate the anger among its people". "Why does the Danish government stand behind someone who insulted the beliefs of 1Â½ billion Muslims in the world", he said later, calling on the west to take measures to prevent such insults in the future or risk "a clash of civilisations".
Iran's stance regarding Israel was nothing new, Mr Mottaki said. For the past 27 years it has not recognised Israel's legal status. Comparing Israel to the apartheid regime in South Africa, the Iranian Minister said that his country had only restored ties with South Africa after Nelson Mandela had come to power and the apartheid regime had "dissolved". Mr Mottaki advocated a referendum in "the occupied territories", in which all Palestinians, including all refugees, should take part. Referring to denials of the holocaust, the Iranian Foreign Minister said that freedom of expression should be respected everywhere: "Discussions on the holocaust should take place within the proper scientific domain". But while Iran did not dispute certain figures of who are supposed to have suffered, it did ask "why Muslims should pay the price in order to set right such a horrific event".
Regarding Iraq, Mr Mottaki said that all foreign forces should be withdrawn. He appealed to the European Parliament to take action against abuses such as those in Abu Ghraib prison and recently in Basra. Afghanistan was now facing a problem of drug production and smuggling. He hoped that Europe would take action against these.
MEPs took issue with Mr Mottaki's stance on Israel and the holocaust. Mr Brok said pointedly that Nelson Mandela had become an example because of his peaceful methods, which was not the same as calling for the wiping out of a state. He also stressed tersely that the holocaust was scientifically proven and needed no further investigation. VÃ©ronique de Keyser (PES, BE) said angrily that she hoped that the next time Mr Mottaki was to visit Parliament he would not cast doubt on the holocaust. "The death of millions of Jews, homosexuals, Roma is in no way comparable to cartoons or the burning of flags. We cannot talk to you if you deal with this in this manner." JosÃ© Salafranca (EPP-ED, ES) said the situation in the Middle East was complicated enough without adding another conflict. Pasqualina Napoletano (PES, IT) said that a Palestinian state was impossible without the state of Israel and wondered in what way the "shocking statements" by Iranian president Ahmadinejad were of use to the Palestinian people. Annemie Neyts (ALDE, BE) said there was a world of difference between severing diplomatic ties with a country and calling for it to be wiped off the map.
On Iran's nuclear programme, Mr Brok criticised the resumption of enrichment activities by Iran, adding that "Iran's missile programme makes no sense if its nuclear activities are only for peaceful purposes". Angelika Beer (Greens/EFA, DE) said that the west may have no other choice but to allow Iran small-scale uranium enrichment on its territory. Mr Salafranca pointed out that according to Mr El Baradei of the IAEA, the plant in Natanz had the capacity to produce atom bombs, while Ms Neyts underlined that Mr El Baradei had spoken of "a lack of trust" in the claim that Iran's nuclear progrramme was solely meant for peaceful purposes. Geoffrey Van Orden (EPP-ED, UK) recalled that in 2004 the then deputy foreign minister of Iran had said that nuclear weapons were un-islamic.
Ms Beer and Ms Neyts both agreed with Mr Mottaki on Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, but Ms Beer asked if Iran was willing to free the journalists and writers who are in prison for political reasons, while Ms Neyts said that once Iran had abolished the death penalty, its criticisms would be more convincing.
In his replies, the Iranian minister said he agreed about the non-desirability of nuclear weapons, but asked why this was not demanded of other countries, who are also members of the UN Security Council. "Our religious teachings do not allow the production of nuclear weapons", he said. And when western countries supplied chemical weapons to Iraq during the eight-year war with Iran, "we never used such weapons, but we suffered from them". On the present situation, he stressed that Mr El Baradei had never said in his reports that Iran was moving towards the production of nuclear weapons.
Mr Mottaki said that Iran condemned all terrorist acts but that "those who try to free their country should not be regarded as terrorists". Human rights should not be used for political aims, he continued, adding that Iran was worried about human rights violations in western countries. Mr Brok retorted that he would be "happy if Christians and others enjoyed the same rights in Muslim states as Muslims enjoy in our Member States".
As regards the death penalty, Mr Mottaki said that for some crimes there is no other solution than the death penalty, but that islamic law provides enough flexibility to insure that it is not carried out in many cases.
At the end of the meeting, Mr Mottaki called on Parliament to set up a committee of inquiry into the beating of young Iraqis by British soldiers, "which had created a very negative image in the islamic world". Mr Brok answered that in the EU all allegations of wrongdoings are always investigated, notably "when done by ourselves".