Iran recently hosted its first visit from a Western head of state since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 in what is no doubt a welcome development for the embattled Islamic Republic. Austrian President and current head of the European Union (EU) Thomas Klestil held high level talks on September 20-21 with Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Muhammad Khatami. The Austrian delegation, which included over 100 Austrian businessmen, sought to strengthen bilateral relations between the two countries on the basis of recent Iranian reforms and what can be seen as the growing independence of EU policy in the face of US policy dictates.
Since Khatamis 1997 election as the "reform president," Irans relationships with Western countries have warmed significantly. Iran has made overtures to the United States (overtures which were dropped when the US refused to end the sanctions against Iran) and has even said it would not enforce its death sentence against Salman Rushdie.
Khatami made a visit to Italy earlier this year and relations with Britain have become more amicable, with the two countries promising their first ministerial visits since 1979. Internal developments have also reassured human rights groups of Irans progress towards reform, with Khatami heading a drive for greater press freedom and calling for an Islamic democracy.
In a September 20 meeting with Iranian leaders, Klestil said Irans efforts towards reform should be rewarded by the international community, according to a September 20 Associated Press report. The Austrian visit led to the signing of business agreements in cultural, industrial, investment and health care. The visit was clearly a victory for Khatami against what is widely considered a conservative backlash against his reform policies. Klestil told a press conference after a September 20 meeting that, "This visit should also show our appreciation for the reforms and policies of President Khatami," as quoted by Reuters. At a meeting the next day, Klestil agreed with Ayatollah Khamenei that much of the negative images of Iran around the world were due to misreporting or a biased concentration on negative happenings. According to an IRNA report, Klestil said news is reported in the West in a way that misrepresents developments currently underway in Iran.
But there do exist many outstanding issues that Western nations and human rights groups are no doubt loath to dismiss off-hand, such as the 13 alleged Israeli spies being held in Iran or the four student demonstrators who currently face the death penalty for their role in the recent unrest. According to AP on September 20, Austrias Green and Liberal parties sharply criticized Klestils visit, coming as it did on the heals of an EU official proclamation calling for the release of the alleged spies and a merciful ruling on the demonstrators.
A September 21 BBC report on the visit does, however, highlight the issue of what Iranian officials could easily target as biased reporting against Iran. The BBCs headline reads, "EU criticizes Iran human rights." Although Klestil did in fact voice EU concern over the human rights situation in Iran, the comment reportedly came as an aside and seemingly had little to do with the main thrust of the visit. The impression given by the BBC is that Klestils main purpose in traveling to Iran was to confront the Iranian authorities for their human rights record.
Rather the EU stance towards Iran, as represented by recent overtures made by Austria and Britain, seems remarkably conciliatory given the tough stance against Iran still held by the United States. The US government has maintained sanctions on Iran and has moreover warned of US sanctions on any international company that engages in business in Iran. The EUs boldness in the face of US attempts to dominate international affairs concerning Iran was not lost on Ayatollah Khamenei. According to an IRNA report, he told Klestil that, "In spite of the US insistence on a unipolar world, the world cannot be run in the form of a single empire. Every nation has its own objectives and values with the right to exist, and if the European Union wants to return to its own identity with self-reliance and independence, it will succeed undoubtedly.'' Far from a rebuke of the Iranian government, Krestils recent visit can be considered a slap in the face to US efforts to maintain Irans isolation.
Zakariya Wright is a staff writer at iviews.com