Reply to European Parliament Debate on Iran: Speech by Chris Patten External Relations Commissioner European Commision

February 12, 2004

I am sure that most Members of Parliament would agree that it is crucial to try to develop a long-term and constructive relationship between the European Union and Iran. Why?

First, as Mr Tannock said, Iran is a great pre-Islamic civilisation; one in which we in the West have occasionally meddled in ways that were not always - to put it mildly - very well judged. Second, Iran is an enormously important regional player. One only has to look at its neighbourhood to see how important it is and to recognise that we cannot have a credible policy for the wider Middle East that does not embrace and include Iran. Thirdly - and I feel this very strongly - we see in Iran, in my judgment, the first stirrings of genuine Islamic democracy. Indeed, for the hard-line conservatives, that is the problem. I happen to think that demography is strongly on the side of democracy in Iran. However, the theologians, who are seeking to block progress, are not the first theologians we have seen - even in our own European experience - who have not been wholly in favour of democracy and the advancement of civil liberties. I will come back to that later.

Because of the significance of Iran, I have favoured - as the European Union has favoured - a constructive, tough-minded engagement with that country. That has taken a number of forms. We have tried to develop a political dialogue, which most recently has focused on our understandable concerns about whether Iran's nuclear ambitions for energy have turned into nuclear ambitions for military purposes.

We were concerned by the IAEA reports last summer and autumn. We are pleased at the progress that has been made following the visit of the three European Union Foreign Ministers to Tehran, but we will now be watching for Dr ElBaradei's next report, for discussions in Vienna and for a clear commitment by Iran to meet the undertakings that it gave in Tehran when European foreign ministers visited. We also hope that we can develop a dialogue about terrorism, as well as weapons of mass destruction, and about the peace process in the Middle East.

We have established a dialogue on Human Rights, which is an extremely important aspect of our relationship with Iran. It is fair to say that we have seen progress in some areas, allowing thematic rapporteurs into Iran. Some of the - frankly barbaric - punishments that have been carried out appear to have been stopped for the time being. Someone said during the debate that we should talk to the judges and others: I have. I felt that, in talking to some, I had been transported back several centuries, in order to take part in the discussions. However, it is important that we have these discussions and have them on a frank basis. We say to those that we talk to in Iran that a Human Rights dialogue is not simply an alternative to doing something about Human Rights. So we want to see our dialogue leading to progress in that area.

We have also talked to the Iranian Government about trade and investment and economic issues. We have had a number of rounds of negotiations towards a trade and cooperation agreement - a fairly basic most-favoured nation agreement. We had not had any discussions for a while. That sort of agreement is important to Iran, not least because of the number of young people coming onto the job market every year and the requirement on the part of the Iranians to attract more foreign investment in order to create the jobs and the economic development which is needed to deal with that demographic pressure.

The Iranians know perfectly well that all those issues - political, nuclear, trade and Human Rights - are umbilically linked. We cannot simply ignore problems in one area and think that we can move forward rapidly in all the others.

I repeat that I am in favour of engagement, but engagement should not be regarded as a sort of cop-out for acting responsibly in these areas which matter so much to Parliament and to the Union and beyond.

It is in that context that I just want to say this about democracy: we have obviously been pleased that the democrats and the moderates have done so well in recent years. We are a little disappointed that, despite that, they have been unable to make more progress in government, partly because so much of what they wanted to do has been blocked by the conservative clerics, by the Guardian Council. That has led to some disillusionment on the part of the public, which led in turn to a low turnout in the elections and a less satisfactory result for the democrats than they might otherwise have achieved.

I am in no doubt that what we are seeing at the moment is an attempt by the conservative clerics to distort the electoral process. Why are they trying to do that? They are not trying to distort the electoral process because they think they are going to do well, but because they think that, unless they do so, the moderates, the reformers and the genuine democrats will do well. It is an attempt to thwart that democratic impulse in Iran that we are seeing at the moment.

I have to say - and I hope this does not sound too much like the leader of a Boy Scout troop - that you cannot halt the democratic process in Iran indefinitely. It is like trying to stop the tide coming in. So I hope the conservatives will realise that and that Iran is best served by allowing people greater participation in the government of their own country. If we see genuine democracy rather than the Potemkin variety of democracy, that will be one of the best ways of underpinning a relationship between Europe and Iran, which all of us should wish to see.

I repeat that if we are serious about a creative and constructive policy for the wider Middle East, it has to involve Iran. It is no good condemning Iran out of hand and regarding it as being led by Manichean forces of wickedness and darkness. We have to be constructive and encourage the genuine democrats, who many of us have met and we have been impressed by their bravery. I hope that in the course of the next months and years we will see Iran making the difficult transition to an Islamic democracy which can play a constructive leadership role in the affairs of its region.