Independent Mandate vs. Foreign Policy: Should European Parliamentarians currently travel to Iran?

By Cornelius Adebahr - 26 October 2012

As luck would have it, two parliamentary delegations are currently planning a trip to Iran for the same date. This Sunday, four members of the European Parliament as well as three deputies of the German Bundestag are expected in Tehran. At the European level, the plans have provoked a media storm of indignation, fuelled by fellow EU parliamentarians as well as two U.S. senators. They allege the trip would foil current international sanctions policy as well as strengthen the Iranian regime. Concerning the Bundestag delegation, the German press has so far remained remarkably quiet. Yet representatives both in Berlin and Brussels have to answer similar questions: To what extent could or should ‚parliamentary foreign policy’ in general differ from the official government line? And how does this relate to the special situation of Iran at the present time?

International parliamentary exchange is a long-established practice. For over 120 years representatives of almost all countries have come together in the framework of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, supplemented by bilateral exchanges. This also includes the parliaments of weak- or non-democratic states, as the long-standing existence of ‚friendship groups’ with Belarus, China, the Maghreb countries and the Central Asian states shows. The justifiable benefit is that MPs receive the direct information they need in order to scrutinise executive foreign policy. In addition, delegations and parliamentary assemblies are legitimate fora of international exchange outside the governmental sphere and beyond the strict government line – given that delegations are composed on a cross-party basis and according to the individual interests of the deputies.

The latter arguments are also put forward by those MPs willing to travel to Iran despite the current wave of fierce criticism. In addition to this, one could also mention Iran’s vibrant, albeit limited parliamentary tradition, which is much stronger than in neighbouring countries. That said, whether the trip would actually thwart current international sanctions or allow parliamentarians to be exploited by the regime, depends more on the right strategy than on the local situation. Not least because many critics would argue that the right time for a trip comes only after the fall of the Islamic regime there – which is contrary to the basic concept of inter-parliamentary cooperation.

That’s why UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon should serve as a model for either parliamentary delegation. Ban’s participation in the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran in August was also very controversial. Due to the universal nature of the United Nations and precisely because of the harsh criticism of Israel and the U.S., he could hardly refuse the invitation. So Ban chose an aggressive and, ultimately, successful strategy: His clear statements on the human rights situation in Iran and the country’s obligation to cooperate on the nuclear issue disgruntled the hosts as much as they earned him respect on the international scene.

If the European and German parliamentarians possessed a similar strategy, their trip would be justified. Especially the latest UN report on the human rights situation in Iran, which also addresses the impact of international sanctions on the civilian population, offers sufficient inspiration for an open debate. Yet given that such a tough policy line is discernable neither in Berlin nor in Brussels, the planned visits are ultimately questionable.

In the end, it could be another stroke of luck coming to save parliamentarians here and there from outright embarassment. On Friday, the European Parliament will decide on this year’s award of the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. The candidates include two jailed Iranians: the lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and the filmmaker Jafar Panahi. Awarding the EU human rights prize for the first time to an Iranian, could become a gift for the representatives too: Because either will they have found a theme for their trip to powerfully advocate in their encounters in Iran; or the Iranian government will indignantly call the visits off, thus itself earning the blame.

The lesson for the future, however, is that MPs as much as their parliaments need to better prepare their exercise of a free (foreign policy) mandate, especially in little democratised countries such as Iran. Because hoping for luck cannot replace a sound strategy.

Disqus comments